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Burning Lights and Falling Stars (2019 Review)

When I look back on 2019, what first comes to mind are a number of protracted struggles. These spanned a broad range of issues, from work to philosophy and from finance to logic. This was probably either the toughest or the second toughest year I’ve had since I moved to London. It’s comparable to 2016 (with MCMAS and Palantir work in parallel, and then TimeLock): in both cases I think that I’ve grown and learnt quite a fair bit over the course of the year, probably more than in other years, but also that this generally isn’t a long-term sustainable pattern.

Software Engineering

The early part of the year involved finishing up work done last year on Transactions2. This project was generally successful, though more painful than expected. There were a lot of weird bugs that took quite a lot of iteration, and since the previous dev lead with whom I worked with on this project left the team and these involved pretty deep technical knowledge it would have been very costly to ramp anyone else up. Delivery could have been improved with a bit more careful project management/planning, but in terms of technical execution I think I performed at or slightly above my personal bar here.

I became a tech lead in March and then a more general team lead later on. A lot of the year involved me trying to get comfortable with the roles; it was a conscious decision to focus more on that as opposed to further refining technical execution of individual projects.

The former focuses on making architectural decisions, prioritising feature and support work, being a representative of the team at higher-level meetings, and being responsible for communicating thoughts and ideas with other teams. The first two things I think were expected to go mostly smoothly, and did: I already contributed to quite a bit of these while “strictly” an IC, and I definitely consulted the leads at the time and then jumped in on things I thought were more important than the work I was originally planning on doing. I maintain a lot of context on what’s going on on the team and product, and am aware that my input on these is valued quite well. The latter two also turned out to have worked better than I expected, in that feedback has generally been positive with regard to communication and argumentation. I also don’t think I’m where I’d like to be with regards to coming up with ideas for things to do (as opposed to, given a list of features, filter them for feasibility/benefit and then prioritise them) though there are of course support structures for that.

The latter role seems to also involve project management, and developing other members of the team to become stronger engineers. This hasn’t gone as well. I think it’s not so much a question of not wanting to do it or investing in it, but instead not being efficient by making an invalid assumption that others would follow the same growth path as me (which is basically mostly by absorption and from figuring things out as they come up). That by itself is maybe reasonable in terms of expectations (I think it worked very well in my case), but I took a long time to course-correct. It looks a bit ironic that why I took a long time to course-correct was because my bandwidth was strained on a lot more pressing things because I felt I needed to handle them directly, and the antidote to that is scaling myself by investing in team members’ growth.

I continued to work on some technical projects throughout the year, though not as intensely as in 2017 or 2018 probably by design. I’d probably say that the highlights were the two hackweek projects that I did. The Summer project is going into production, and involved careful reasoning through the AtlasDB development stack. The Winter project came with a bit of a pleasant surprise: my efforts on being thoughtful about interviews landed a runner-up for use of tech, which I really wasn’t expecting; I did the project more because I saw a relevant need.

Recreation and Personal Development

A fairly common theme here is skill development – there’s some evidence of this in terms of Sudoku and German, both of which are things I spend a fair bit of my free time on.

Sudoku and Logic Puzzles

I set a goal to achieve a global rank in the top 100 of the World Puzzle Federation Sudoku and Puzzle GPs. This was achieved in both cases: I finished with rank 66 in Sudoku and 92 in Puzzles. The contests run monthly (I think it’s actually every 4 weeks) from January to August.

Each Sudoku contest is basically an exam paper which is marked out of 600, though additional points can be obtained by submitting a fully correct paper before time is up. There are 8 contests, and the overall GP ranking is based on the sum of the six highest scores. I was at around the 350/600 mark at the end of last year, and so was expecting a final score of about 2200 or so (allowing for discards of bad results), but I probably got slightly better over the year and managed to finish with 2504. Puzzles went less smoothly as I missed the first round as I was on holiday and had a really bad round 6 where I chose very tough puzzles to attack, but I still squeaked over the top-100 line.

Deutsch

I started learning German this year. I think I began with Lingvist and Duolingo around May or so, and then started formal lessons in June. I have lessons once a week for 1.5 hours. I was originally hoping to take the A1 exam by the end of this year – this is currently planned for January, though my teacher’s quite confident that I won’t have issues. Nonetheless I do think I’ve made substantial progress.

I hoped to push on towards A2 actually. It’s unclear if I am at A2: while the CEFR descriptors don’t look too hard at that level (I feel I can satisfy almost all of the criteria), I’m aware there’s quite a lot of grammatical knowledge expected at A2 that I don’t know or am not confident about (e.g. irregular verbs in the simple past, passive voice). I’ve tried the Hören, Lesen and Schreiben (listening, reading and writing) sections of various exams aimed at the A2 level, like the telc A2 and UK GCSEs (I’m saving the Goethe papers for when I actually do that exam) and generally have been able to do quite well on them (i.e. above 80% on telc A2, Grade 9s on the GCSE components – maybe not writing), though admittedly Sprechen (speaking) is the part I’m most concerned about.

Travel and Exploration

Travel this year included four trips to Singapore (two were based around weddings). I also visited Zürich multiple times, Japan, Brussels, Boston, Stockholm and Palo Alto (though mostly for work). I did not travel as much as I wanted to outside of work, possibly because of prioritising other goals (I mainly worked on logic puzzles and German on the weekends) though actually they aren’t that incompatible (e.g. a flight is a good amount of time to work on learning German).

I really enjoyed the Japan trip (highlights included the Sankei-en Garden, Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum and Ginza Tamai), and though the wedding trips were short (just 3-4 days in Singapore each time) I don’t regret them at all. Travelling is interesting: I don’t always look forward to the trips (especially the work ones) but almost always enjoy them. It’s possible there’s some sunk-cost fallacy here, though that’s mitigated by me not directly paying for the work trips in terms of money (still in terms of time, of course).

Financials

I generally looked at my portfolio quite a bit less after Q2, perhaps because I invested more resources in my new role at work and also because there generally was a fair bit of non-actionable stress.

Savings Rate

There are several ways to slice this: Savings Rate #4 from this post is what I normally use. In a UK context, define $S_1$ as workplace pension contributions, $S_2$ as individual pension contributions (e.g. SIPPs), $S_3$ as other savings (ISAs, taxable accounts), $C$ as consumption and $D$ as tax changes derived from taxable benefits. Furthermore, define $\tau$ as the tax rate expected when one withdraws from one’s pensions. Then

$SR = \dfrac{\tau(S_1 + S_2) + S_3}{\tau(S_1 + S_2) + S_3 + C + D}$

Roughly 55% this year, up two percentage points from last year (looking at it, my expenses did increase quite a lot from last year, but not by as much as the raise I received, so this makes sense). This is in a pretty reasonable spot.

Discipline in Spending

I’ll paste an extract from the essay I wrote on my birthday this year, that captures the major spending increases here:

• Groceries has had an increasing trend year-on-year, going up by 50% from 2017 to 2018, and another 26% this year. Some of this is because I patronise M&S nowadays; I actually find the food tastes better. The ”three meat or fish items for £10” deals were something I used to scorn in first year at university, calling it absurdly expensive; I now actually use that on occasion.
• Gifts has increased to 2x over last year. I think this is natural, seeing as my financial position is a bit more stable now. I also definitely recognise that I don’t have infinite time to use this.
• Travel has increased to 2.5x over last year, as part of a generally increasing trend. This is fine as long as it doesn’t increase exponentially from here. Some of this is also probably because I started thinking about flying slightly more premium cabins (premium economy or even business), and where this is not the case booking extra legroom seats. It seems I also can spend quite a bit when making “bleisure” trips, such as to Boston and Palo Alto. I think that’s okay, though – especially if I’m spending it on interesting experiences (and not tat).
• Clothing has increased to 2x over last year. I have lumped shoes into clothing and that is certainly a part of the cost, but that definitely doesn’t explain the whole delta. I think it tends to be a large number of items as opposed to individually expensive ones – perhaps it’s a form of retail therapy? I think something actionable here might be to implement a one-in-one-out policy in 2020. £28.74 per week for clothes is concerning. This does cluster (e.g. I spent £250 in the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, including on a pair of Nudie raw denim and two pairs of Converse that should hopefully last) but it’s still more than I would expect. I’d view most articles of clothing apart from shoes to generally be luxuries at £28.74, and I certainly don’t feel like I’m buying one such treat per week.

There’s still some discipline, in that my savings rate has increased in spite of these trends, and in most cases (apart from the clothing one) the increases are justified and were made (mostly) thoughtfully. I have to deduct points for the clothing-as-retail-therapy thing though.

Learning German 4: German GCSEs – Lesen/Reading

By now, I’ve taken learning German more seriously for half a year. It’s still difficult, especially speaking and writing. I tried the German GCSE exam for reading, and managed to get a grade 9 with 49 points out of 60 (that’s the highest possible grade in GCSE). However, I’m still not confident. I find building sentences problematic if I want to talk about more complex things. Reading is slightly easier, but I won’t know if a sentence is wrong!

Mittlerweile lerne ich seit ein halb Jahr Deutsch. Es ist noch schwierig, besonders sprechen und schreiben. Ich hatte die Deutsch GCSE-Prüfüngen für Lesen probiert. Ich habe im Prüfüngen einen Neun (das ist die höchstmögliche Note) mit 49/60 Punkten erzielt, aber ich habe noch kein Konfidenz. Ich finde Satzbau problematisch, wenn ich komplexe Dinge sagen will. Lesen ist ein bisschen einfacher, aber ich werde nicht wissen ob ein Satz falsch ist.

The paper I tried out specifically was the June 2018 exam for AQA GCSE German. This qualification is assessed over four papers, which attempt to test the four common language skills – Paper 1 tests listening, Paper 2 speaking, Paper 3 reading and Paper 4 writing. I found it interesting to see how an attempt is made to segment performance by limiting the extent to which the skills not being assessed are required. For example, in Papers 1 and 3 many questions ask for answers in English, and for the sections where answers are required in German full sentences generally aren’t needed, and linguistic errors generally aren’t penalised unless they affect clarity.

I tried out Paper 3 first, largely for practical reasons – I will probably do Paper 1 at some point, as the sound files are also available online. I can’t quite administer Paper 2 to myself, and for Paper 4 I’d need someone to evaluate my own writing, as I’m certainly not in a position to do that yet. I attempted the Higher paper, which is aimed at students seeking to get a grade between 4 and 9 (recall that passing grades range from 1 to 9). I wasn’t confident of getting a super high grade as I’ve only studied German on-and-off for around seven months or so; GCSE courses typically run for two years. Nonetheless, I managed to scrape it (the grade boundary for 9 was at 48 of 60, and I scored 49 – note that 48 is good enough, so I had one point of breathing room).

The paper is divided into three sections; the first involves reading texts and responding in English, the second is similar to the first but in German, and the third involves translating a German passage back to English. Generally, within each section difficulty increases, which led to a rather non-monotonic difficulty curve. Q8 at the end of Section A was probably a question aimed at top students, while Q9, the first question of Section B was a crossover with Foundation Tier, so aimed towards the lower end of the Higher Tier range.

I also found the translation task fairly straightforward – I knew all of the words apart from Bauernhof, and based on context (working with animals, starting the day early, hard work) along with guessing from prefixes (Bau– for construction: it turns out Bauer means farmer but I didn’t know that as well, and –hof for yard e.g. from Bahnhof – train station – or Friedhof – cemetery) guessed it correctly as farm. My natural tendency to aim for precision seemed to work very well on this question.

Most of the marks lost came from holes in my German vocabulary. There were questions that asked for specific features of the text to be described in English, and these often effectively reduced to questions about the definitions of specific words. For example, there were questions that effectively asked what Dieb (thief), enspannen (relax), vermeiden (avoid) or lügen (lie, as in telling an untruth), none of which I knew, meant – I was able to figure out from context that that word was the desired answer, but had to guess when translating. Interestingly, if I was asked to write the answer in German (being allowed to lift) I would have scored these marks!

There were also a few marks which were lost because of carelessness. I’m aware that trying to pick out keywords and translating them is often a trap, yet I still ended up making some of these mistakes. For example, on the first question which involved reading people’s descriptions of what they did to help the environment, I accidentally described someone who said Meine Eltern haben immer ihren Müll getrennt, aber … habe ich nichts gemacht as saying they separated their trash. I probably got too excited about knowing what getrennt meant – it’s often used when asking if a bill is to be split in restaurants – and wrote down “separating trash”. The correct answer is of course, nothing – the separation was done by their parents, not them!

I’m not entirely sure this grade 9 is secure, being just two points away from an 8. That said, the 7-8 boundary is at 41, so I’m quite confident of at least an 8. This also means that if I was to take the entire GCSE qualification an overall 9 probably wouldn’t happen, as I’d see reading as the language skill I’m currently most confident in in German. Students have overall grades calculated based on the sum of their marks in each of the four papers – while a candidate doesn’t need to get a 9 in each component, any marks below the 9 boundary in one paper must generally be offset by marks in other papers. I’m not sure what standard is expected, but I won’t be too surprised if I struggle to get a 5 in Schreiben (writing) or Sprechen (speaking).

December is a rather unusual month for me. My birthday is in December, as is Christmas and New Year’s Eve. By many metrics it’s also the end of often discretely-viewed periods of time (Q4, H2, a year – this year, a decade as well). It thus tends to lend itself particularly well to both introspection as well as frenzied rushes to complete things before the end of the relevant period.

The Biblical season of Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas and focuses on preparation for and awaiting the celebration of Jesus’s birth. This means that the day on which Advent begins varies depending on which day of the week Christmas falls on (if Christmas is itself a Monday, then four Sundays before that would be the 3rd of December; conversely if Christmas is itself a Sunday, four Sundays before that would be the 27th of November). I was aware of the season in terms of its observance in church, though I don’t think it manifested much outside that.

The name originates from the Latin adventus; more generally there is the word advent which can also be used to describe something arriving that is significant (e.g. “with the advent of refrigeration, fresh food could be kept fresh for longer” is good, while I’d find “the 20th of September marks my advent in the UK” strange unless you’re someone who made significant changes to the UK). The naming of the season is apt from a Christian perspective (for obvious reasons), and probably even without one (though that’s a separate discussion).

I first came across the concept of an advent calendar, which as the same suggests counts down the days to Christmas during Advent, on a virtual pets site called Neopets. On Neopets, this offered a gift and a small amount of the site’s currency every day during December (though, differently from most advent calendars, this included the days from December 26 to 31 as well). However, apart from the Neopets one I wasn’t aware of this being a tradition in Singapore (or elsewhere, for that matter).

The idea of gifts isn’t inherent to advent calendars (initial versions served very much as mechanisms to track the days to Christmas as well), though it is common, especially in commercial contexts. I saw many more of these when I came to the UK – perhaps this makes sense, as Neopets was started by British developers. Many commercial advent calendars feature small items in 24 or 25 sealed and opaque, but individually openable compartments. The idea here is that one tracks the days to Christmas by opening each compartment only when the relevant day arrives: on December 1, the door marked 1 is opened, and so on until the last day. There’s technically nothing stopping one from opening the later compartments early, but I guess one would be cheating oneself of the theorised anticipation and excitement in the build-up to Christmas.

I tend to associate these primarily with chocolate (I probably first encountered these in Sainsbury’s in my first year), though many other variations (beauty products, alcohol, toys etc.) exist. There are also purpose-built empty containers (presumably intended for people to buy for their kids or spouses) with 24 or 25 small drawers or pockets.

There is even a fairly popular advent calendar for programming problems (Advent of Code), which I’ve found useful to get a bit of algorithm/data structure practice. I’ll be doing that this year in Haskell (maintaining the option to switch to Java or Python if things get too difficult or I get too busy, especially later on in the series).

There’s probably something to be said around what constitutes a good countdown to Christmas. I’ll admit that on first reaction, I find a number of the commercial ones out there a little awkward. However, the definition of ‘good’ is likely to be highly dependent on what one views the Christmas period to be about. For example, among other things I want to be able to evaluate and introspect on the year gone by, and also to be present when spending time with family and friends – and I find that, say, an alcohol-based calendar is helpful for neither end. However, these could be appropriate for someone who finds this to be helpful because they enjoy it, and/or for giving them confidence to interact and/or interact better with family and friends.