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December 2016

Jeremy’s Best of 2016

This was inspired by a YouGov article that I read. It can be interesting to look at some of the polling data (not just for elections/political things – YouGov does lots of interesting research). I’m largely in agreement with Surowiecki’s “wisdom of the crowds” for the scenarios he has identified – but these are actually quite rare (wise crowds should arrive at their decisions independently, and some should be able to draw on some form of local knowledge); when I think of decisions made by a crowd I often think of asset bubbles (but this fails independence).

Nonetheless, this post is intended to finish the year on a relatively lighter note. I find myself agreeing with the crowd that 2016 has been painful, for the world and for both the countries I find some degree of attachment to, though personally it has actually been pretty decent. For 2017 I’m cautiously bullish on myself, partly out of pragmatism (I don’t see the value in being too bearish for things within my sphere of influence). I’d say I’m pretty ambivalent, if slightly bearish as far as the rest of the world is concerned – I do think Brexit and President Trump do have possible upsides even if I don’t think I would have opted for the additional volatility introduced by each. There is news that’s clearly negative to me, such as the events in Syria. Nonetheless my investing habits would say I’m an optimist – I continued buying through the drawdown in Februrary, piled in after the Brexit vote and would have after Trump had the markets stayed down.

Unfortunately I couldn’t really answer many of the categories (e.g. favourite film/actor/actress). I’ll add a few other categories which I think I would find more interesting to talk about.

This is quite long, so here’s a table of contents.

Best music act / artist of 2016

YouGov poll vote: Adele.
JK concurs, though weakly.
Honorable mention: Nil.

Huh. 25 was released last year, though I guess it’s fair game; if you asked me to assign this last year I’d probably have said Macklemore, because of Starting Over, Otherside and Can’t Hold Us (all 2013). It’s hard for me to pick a clear winner this year; I have been listening to Daughtry (It’s Not Over and Home have really nice acoustic versions, though they’re from 2006!), James Arthur (Impossible from 2012, mainly) and, strangely, the Backstreet Boys (Show Me The Meaning, 1999 and Shape Of My Heart, 2000) a fair bit. Hello is powerful, though I’d probably opt for Million Years Ago as my winner here. I normally find numerical hyperbole annoying, but it worked for me here.

I guess I’ll define “of 2016” as being something I experienced or discovered in 2016, independent of when it was actually produced. That does hold for Adele’s 25, certainly.

Best sporting event of 2016

YouGov poll vote: Rio 2016.
JK concurs.
Honorable mention: Cubs win the World Series.

I’d think for many countries this is a completely unsurprising result.

I don’t follow baseball (or sport, for that matter) closely at all, but I know the Cubs win was very well received at work and I guess by proxy enjoyed the moment. I was a little surprised to not see it on the board, but then I remembered I work in a US based company.

Best event of 2016

YouGov poll vote: Rio 2016.
JK: 100% on MCMAS-Dynamic. (Something personal – 3rd on the poll.)
Honorable mention: Graduation at Imperial. (Another personal thing – 3rd on the poll.)

I don’t follow sports closely. From the rest of the post you can figure out that I’m not a supporter of Brexit, so the top two are off the board. My grades were always pretty solid, but I guess this was a form of validation of performance across multiple cohorts (as debatable as those last few points can get when grading projects…). The cherry on the cake was balancing it with part-time contracting work at Palantir.

Graduation was fun, in spite of my complaints that a lot of it was symbolic. For me, I’d say its value was centered around reminiscing with some of the professors who’ve played an active role in my studies (Ally, Duncan and Tony, most notably), having a good talk with two close friends who aren’t in the UK any more (we still talk, but face to face meetings are more enjoyable), catching up with some of my other close friends and coursemates in general.

Worst event of 2016

YouGov poll vote: Brexit vote.
JK: Implosion of the opposition in the UK. (8th on the poll.)
Honorable mention: Syrian conflicts. (3rd on the poll.)

It’s really tough to pin this on a single event. I lean conservative, but a credible opposition is a good thing to have.

Interestingly, “something personal” was not on the board at all, though I guess people might be a bit more reluctant to share such negative events. That said, surely “something personal” (without further clarification) as a worst answer is valid?

Biggest impact on the world in 2016

YouGov poll vote: Donald Trump.
JK emphatically concurs.
Honorable mention: David Cameron. (4th on the poll.)

I don’t have any other candidates for this; I’ve picked the main enablers of the two massive news events for me this year. If Clinton won and the vote was to Remain I really wouldn’t know. Obama, perhaps?

New word/phrase from 2016 that sums up the year

YouGov poll vote: Brexit.
JK: Post-truth. (2nd on the poll.)
Honorable mention: Brexit. (1st on the poll.)

As far as I’m concerned Brexit is small potatoes compared to the Trump election, though I think I can see why some respondents went with Brexit anyway – Trump himself described his election as being “Brexit-plus-plus-plus”, and I agree. We then had the Article 50 court case, and while I do see issues with not implementing Brexit (since that was what was voted for), the court case wasn’t exactly about that, and branding the judges “Enemies of the People” was unacceptable. (Though to be fair that’s also related to Brexit.)

The profane options (3rd and 5th) are a fine response, I’d say.  I had to look up “lit” (4th; intoxicated?) and “dab” (6th; a kind of dance) – the former makes sense, I’m not so sure about the latter. Perhaps it bears some kind of connotation that I’m not aware of?

I’ve left out some of the more entertainment-related categories featured earlier in the article, but added two more that are relevant to me:

Favourite book/paper/article of 2016

JK: “Stock Series“, Jim Collins (jlcollinsnh)
Honorable mention: “Symbolic Implementation of Alternating Automata“, Bloem et al.

I’ve been passive investing for slightly over a year and half now, as far as I can tell. I’ve always been pretty frugal. Nonetheless I’d say this was a very well presented introduction to private investment and was useful for corroborating some of the existing knowledge I’d picked up along the way reading Monevator and other personal finance blogs.

Of course, past performance is no indicator of future returns. My own portfolio doesn’t fully coincide with his growth approach (VTSAX/VTI + cash), in that I hold a small slug of REITs, go international and attempt tilting (value, small-caps, EM). I think all-domestic is debatable in the US whilst probably unreasonable elsewhere, though I’m not doing say pure VNRT or HSBC’s American Index Fund + cash either. For a one fund portfolio VTSAX/VTI seem like good ideas; I might prefer the world trackers VWRL (not cheap at 0.25% OCF, though), HMWO (0.15%) or MBWA (0.20%), though they come at a cost so I can see an argument to stick with the VTSAX (0.05%).

The second paper helped me understand the “breakpoint construction”, a technique for converting an alternating automaton (think finite-state machine where one travels infinite paths and can be in multiple states at the same time) to an equivalent nondeterminstic Buchi automaton (finite-state machine, where one travels infinite paths, but is only in one state at a time) with potentially many more states. It’s a huge mess to explain and I think the paper helped quite a fair bit in understanding how to utilise this construction.

Favourite game of 2016

JK: “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes”, Steel Crate Games
Honorable mention: “Fallout 4”, Bethesda Studios

Generally I don’t play video games too much, though having other players (especially friends) certainly helps. After a while, we knew to asynchronously dispatch blocking modules quickly (Passwords, Complicated Wires), got better at reading Morse Code, and I remembered how to solve Simon Says with no strikes and parts of the Large Button tasks without needing the manual. (“Double Trouble” was as far as we got, I think… “I Am Hardcore” not yet, unfortunately.)

As a bonus, I decided I wanted to mod some elements of the game (mainly to add additional modules that tested anagram skills, certain properties concerning loop termination, and relationships in finite-length sequences of numbers). I thus meddled around with Unity a little, and also revisited C# which I hadn’t used for two years. That’s actually the challenge you see in the picture at the top: the game picks an 8 letter word which has no one-word anagrams apart from itself. It shuffles the letters and then encodes each using a shift cipher (it actually uses 8 shift ciphers, one for each button) based on the button index and certain characteristics of the bomb (such as its serial number, batteries and ports). Solving the module is thus simply reversing the ciphers and decoding the anagram, but doing that under pressure can be tricky.

I haven’t played the game for a while given that most of the bomb defusal squad (if you can call it that) is no longer based in London, but I really enjoyed the times we did play.

Fallout 4 was pretty fun the first time round; after that not so much. After finishing the main storyline (going with the Minutemen ending) I started optimising things a bit more aggressively and the game got considerably easier, even on Very Hard (I’m terrible at FPS games, but certain combinations of perks synergised pretty well). The VATS system was even the basis for a dynamic programming loop induction proof I gave my tutees.

Navigating Tube Fares

A bit of an additional post for the week, as I’ve had a little bit more spare time! This post is a more fully-fleshed out response to a question my friend Andrea had, about the value of an annual travelcard.

I’ve started doing my preliminary accounts for 2016, and one of the things I examined was my transport expenditure. I typically try to use what’s known as zero-based budgeting (that is, each category and the value assigned to it is justified from fresh assumptions, rather than say raising the previous year’s data by RPI and calling it a day). Of course there’s some flexibility (I’m not going to pass up a social gathering just because of finances, unless it’s insanely expensive – which is unlikely given the background of my friends, or at least the activities we take part in together).

There’s a column of 86.50s, corresponding to a string of monthly zone 1-2 Travelcards purchased on student discount. We then have a crash to two low months as I was in the US and Singapore respectively, a figure just over 100 for November, and December looks to be closing around 50; I didn’t purchase any Travelcards after August. At the time, I made these decisions because I was unsure if going for the annual Travelcard was a reasonable idea, especially given that I would frequently not be in London owing to international travels, both for work and for personal affairs. The total cost for the category for the year was 894.68; this is lower than normal because I didn’t purchase any flights this year. I’ve been a bit cautious having been deployed internationally on quite a few occasions; I didn’t realise that you can refund the remaining value of a Travelcard!

This would have been 924 if I bought an annual zone 1-2 Travelcard (sadly, I’d now need 1,320 as I’m no longer a student); that said, with one I might have travelled more as well. Also, I was out for two months and started occasionally walking to the office in December. You can get refunds on the remaining value of a Travelcard – that said, I’m not sure repeatedly canceling and then repurchasing annual Travelcards is permissible, and it seems like it would certainly be inconvenient. Loss shouldn’t be too major of a concern, as Oyster cards can be registered to an online account which one can use to transfer a season pass away from a lost card. (I’ve done this before, though with a monthly pass.)

I think a question would then be as follows: exactly how frequently (in terms of number of days) do I need to use the Tube to make pay-as-you-go (PAYG)/monthly/annual Travelcards the best choice? We can examine that under a few assumptions:

  • The traveller is an adult.
  • All journeys are within Zone 1.
  • PAYG is implemented through contactless, so weekly caps apply.
  • The year begins on a Monday (this matters for weekly capping computations).
  • 16/7 trips per day (that’s reasonably realistic for me).
  • (Somewhat cheeky) If one travels for N days one travels for the first N days of the year.
  • Journeys on day are made between 0430 of D and 0430 of day D + 1.
  • The “greedy monthly flexible” (GMF) strategy works as follows:
    • It buys monthly travelcards as long as there are full months remaining.
    • For the partial month (if one exists), it uses the cheaper of:
      • a monthly travelcard
      • PAYG (with weekly capping)

Obviously GMF dominates a pure PAYG strategy, because for full months a monthly travelcard always beats PAYG (consider February), and for partial months GMF considers PAYG, so it does at least as well as PAYG. If I’m not wrong GMF is optimal under these contrived conditions: it intuitively seems difficult to recover from burning through February, the shortest month, without buying the monthly travelcard as you’d need four weekly ones. However, in the general case GMF is certainly not optimal (consider the period February 28 – March 31; you can buy the Travelcard on February 28, which expires March 27, and then pay for four days of fares, or pay February 28 and buy the Travelcard on March 1; the optimal strategy saves three days of fares).

The fare if one has to travel for N days is reflected in the graph below; and unsurprisingly the flexible methods are superior for small N but inferior for large N. Our model has a break-even point at about 314-315 days.

The final decision, unsurprisingly, boils down to the level of certainty you can have about your travels. If you don’t expect to be spending more than around 50 days outside of the UK, the annual travelcard seems like an idea worthy of consideration especially if you know when said days lie. That said, we have made two key assumptions, one of which favours the monthly strategy and one of which favours the annual one:

  • An upfront lump-sum payment is needed if you’re using the annual scheme. Our analysis did not account for the time value of money (you would need to discount the monthly payments to today to get a fairer comparison of the two).
  • However with the monthly strategy we’ve assumed that plans are known well in advance (at least a month) and implementation is done perfectly. In practice, there are likely to be some minor errors or plans not aligning neatly on month boundaries that will result in slightly higher fares.

I personally don’t expect to travel more than that, but I won’t be getting an annual card next year, for other reasons. (In particular, that “16/7 trips per day” assumption is unlikely to be valid, but that’s a subject for another post.)

Jeremy’s Annual Review 2016

As mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been using the system of objectives and key requirements (OKRs) to keep track of how I’ve been faring, looking at various metrics. I think OKRs do tell a significant part of the story, but they certainly don’t cover everything; a year is certainly long enough that things can change direction massively. There may be unexpected things that have come along for better or worse.

Why am I doing this? Reviews in general help me to reflect on the direction I’ve been taking, and allow me to consider how I should orient myself in the next period under consideration. I also find that being held publicly accountable is useful in spurring myself to perform better.

I’ll split this into three main sections: what went well, what did not go well and what major lessons were learnt. There’ll be another post to come concerning targets for the next year, though I’m sure some of the information here will feed back into that.

Things that went well:

  1. Academics at Imperial. There is still certainly room for improvement, but scoring 100 percent in the project and a 94.5 average for the final year blew even my best expectations away (95 and 92, respectively). I wasn’t too happy with some of the scores for the modules I took, but I think all things considered this was a very solid finish to four arduous years.
  2. Contracting at Palantir. I think working part-time as a software engineer during the term was great, though I realise the long hours (mainly because context switching became super expensive) had nontrivial costs. The main drivers behind this involved maintaining the currency of my skills as a developer as well as keeping in touch with the team at Palantir, and I think both ends were achieved here.
  3. Friendships. I was expecting the worst after we moved on from Imperial, but I’ve been keeping in touch with a fair few people. It hasn’t always been the easiest thing to do and it’s certainly caused me a lot of stress (unfortunately, it might have also had that effect on said friends), but I find maintaining good communication very worthwhile and I’m happy to have friends who also (at least seem to) believe this is important.
  4. Travels. I don’t mind a small amount of travel, but for various reasons was faced with a London – San Francisco – Palo Alto – Washington DC – New York – London – Singapore – London trip which ordinarily is more than I would like. Nonetheless I broke this down into small chunks and handled each leg of the journey smoothly. Besides the aforementioned trip I also had another visit to Palo Alto earlier in the year as well.
  5. Writing. I think at least over the past three months or so when I started here, I’ve been a lot more disciplined with sticking to a schedule and forcing myself to express my thoughts.

Things that didn’t go so well:

  1. Acquaintances. I’d have liked to keep in touch with more people from uni. I know this goes against the third point above, though that focuses more on the closest friends I had at Imperial whilst this focuses more on quantity.
  2. Working hours. Subsequent to a previous post where I explained how I tracked time at Imperial, there have been spikes above 80 and approaching 90 even, which is something I need to learn to control. I think I tend to have a very strong bias towards action, plus I do know that I can be very determined; but this can lead to such situations.
  3. Shifting standards / “the problem of never settling”. I find that I’m usually able to identify weaknesses and then address them (good), but there will always be more weaknesses to find, and a high quality bar very often has pretty heavy costs too. I’ll spend some time over the next two weeks to clear my head on this. As always there’s the flip side to this which probably leads to my current attitude, that settling for less-than-great performance isn’t ideal as well.
  4. Investments. I’m largely a defensive investor, as Benjamin Graham would call it. I invest every month when my paycheck comes in, and diversify into a portfolio of passive and active funds (this is needed in some cases, such as for access to small-value). Yet there were many occasions this year where the markets kept me up at night or had me worried, when they really shouldn’t. I have a tendency to be very aggressive with these (I bought in after Brexit; not so much after Trump since there wasn’t really a significant drop there once the markets opened).

Key lessons I learned (largely chronological):

  1. “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great”. (You might recognise this as a quote from Tom Hanks’s A League Of Their Own.) I think I’ve generally liked to put myself through my paces, but this came out of the depths of working with MCMAS-Dynamic. In a way finishing that project gave me some kind of further validation that the 90%+ grades and the strong performance reviews I had were warranted. Sure, it can be painful, but the sense of accomplishment I often get when successfully pulling off something really difficult is great. And even at the end (before the grades) I was still concerned the project was not hard enough!
  2. Sometimes I need to take the first step. I’d say I learned this most clearly in what I call the post-Imperial crash period, when I started realising that a number of my friends would no longer be in London. I was somewhat concerned about how things would go from then on, and this caused me a fair bit of stress. I became considerably more proactive with many of them, and it seems things have worked out better than what I expected.
  3. “If you’re made to wait, it’s for your own good”. Performing high-quality work takes time. During MCMAS-Dynamic I found that after 8 hours or so per day I had difficulty maintaining my concentration; I thus switched my strategy from firing off those 11 or 12-hour days during the term that required comparatively less abstract reasoning to an 8 hour a day 7 day a week model. I was pretty drained out by the end, still. I’d be inclined to think that the pure technical difficulty of MCMAS-Dynamic is higher than anything I’ve had to face so far at Palantir, but I’ve similarly run into seeming brick walls with some of my work (though generally have not been implementing the 7 day a week thing). The quote above was introduced to me by a teammate who was concerned by the hours I’d been working; I think it was intended to be in an outgoing direction (that is, I might be making others wait for their own good), but it could also apply to some extent in the other way (that is, doubling down on effort in an attempt to rush something out is not always a good idea; being forced to slow down might be better).

The Problem of Never Settling

There’s still a little bit more of the year (I’d say we’re about 95 percent through). However we’re sufficiently far along that I think it’s time to take stock of what has happened so far, and evaluate what has happened.

Of course, this has been a year of shifting gears, at least in professional terms. At the turn of the year I was struggling with the Immerman-Szelepcsenyi theorem and how to write static analyzers; in the middle I tackled probably some of the most intellectually challenging work I have ever faced, dealt with leaving Imperial (in spite of the aforementioned challenges – there were other things), and set off around the globe. And now at the end I’m left thinking about how to best manage my time and energy across a seemingly unbounded spectrum of professional and personal responsibilities.

The continual pursuit of improvement, even if incremental, can be a great thing. It’s of course difficult to assign suitable metrics, but the mathematics of compounding makes a 0.5% daily improvement more than 5x if sustained over a year. Familiarity with, say, the Parable of the Talents (on being a good steward of what one has) drives the point home further – I’m thankful for the opportunities that I’ve been given so far, but that inevitably comes with some sense of responsibility, that said opportunities are suitably managed and capitalised upon.

An issue with that, then, is distinguishing what constitutes responsibility and what constitutes going beyond (the technical term, especially in a moral or ethical context, would be supererogation). For me at least, the standards I set are somewhat dynamic, and they’ll tend to rise further on strong performances or fall back on weaker ones (most obviously academic targets, also a couple of personal ones). I seek to make these standards difficult but achievable, for I find this spurs growth; yet, it’s way too easy to forget about that and then perceive missing a challenging target as a complete failure (when, actually, pursuing said target probably had a positive effect on the overall outcome, just that it set an anchor at an even higher point).

I tend to push hard to meet what I’ve set for myself. I have a practice of doing weekly reviews, and I think this increases my awareness of how I’m performing; I thus tend to put in a bit (or a lot) of extra effort if something doesn’t look like it’s tracking its target. However, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, these standards can be and often are blunt instruments especially because they frequently are not entirely under my control.

There are two fairly well-known aphorisms that I find applicable to this – one that’s pretty general (perfect is the enemy of the good) and one more contemporary and specific to software engineering (launch and iterate). Indeed, these challenging targets can sometimes appear overwhelming, though generally I find myself able to focus on what I can do and proceed.

It’s important to keep a clear head through all of this, and taking a bit of time out over last weekend has helped. I think what I’m getting at here is that there can be a dark side to the pursuit of continual improvement, possibly because it leads to greater monitoring and self-accountability, and with some success that can lead to expectations being rapidly revised upwards (at least in my experience). In spite of that, I still believe it’s worth doing.

Stepping Back

I met up with a couple of my closest friends from uni over the weekend. At the end of what was a rather tough week (plugging away at debugging several issues regarding distributed systems) where everything seemed to center around getting a bunch of servers to behave as I wanted them to, it felt very different and somewhat refreshing to take a step back. I’m usually quite capable of focusing aggressively on a task at hand, which usually is good as far as said task is concerned but may not be optimal in general terms.

We played Loaded Questions, and one of the questions that came up was what we didn’t like about our professions. Being a bunch of Computing alumni, the set of answers was probably not too surprising:

  1. The salary.
  2. It’s difficult to measure performance.
  3. The algorithms are too complex.

I contributed #2 (though to be fair, thinking that I submitted either of the other answers is not entirely unreasonable – from an earlier post you can see that I investigated what looked like a 1 basis point shortfall in interest payments, and I just said that I had a tough week with debugging). Though I’ve tried to consider frameworks for evaluating this, I frequently find myself using outcomes and deliverables as primary measures of performance. This leads to me assessing myself based on my ability to get things done regardless of the costs or means required, and there are many factors beyond my control that can influence these.

I think this is a bigger issue when dealing with areas where I tend to believe I’m largely in control of the volume and quality of “output”, whatever that means. For example, as far as my investment portfolio is concerned, I tend to prefer to set goals along the lines of “set aside at least N for investment, incurring fees less than F” (largely controllable), rather than “portfolio net worth to be at least N” (I don’t believe I have the edge or insight to be able to be in control of such goals). I like to think software is a domain where I do exercise quite a bit of control over what I write, so it certainly is an issue in that sense.

In any case, I was happy to have had the opportunity to cool off a little. I think it’s a good thing that I can and do take my work pretty seriously (it has led to reasonably solid results in the past), even if it comes with the occasional tradeoff of getting excessively absorbed in it. On balance I think it’s a positive trait to have, but it’s important to remember that there are many things beyond whether an invariant holds in a bunch of servers.