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April 2020

Torrential Storm (Q1+ 2020 Review)

I’m somewhat behind schedule on this one. To some extent, working from home has confused my weekend workflows, in that there isn’t as clear of a separation between work and non-work days. I’ve also been finding writing more taxing than normal, perhaps because I’ve had to do more of that at work for various reasons, both in a professional capacity and auf Deutsch, fur meine Hausaufgabe (in German, for my homework).

I’m still working on AtlasDB and at Palantir. For various reasons Q1 (and I’m extending this review to cover the first two weeks of April) has been tricky in terms of events at work. I think there’s one core paradigm that I used to have as a lead that I had some doubts about at the end of last year, and I’d say has been shaken even more since.

My normal approach to being a lead is to aggressively apply the golden rule – to push policies that I would like or find useful or helpful as a developer, and to reject those that would be unhelpful (allowing for some measure of unpleasantness, but not too much). The problems here come if there are considerable differences in relevant preferences or inclinations: what I find useful as I started out may not be useful for others.

Normally I’d write a section detailing my travels, though of course this was considerably less in Q1 because of COVID-19. I did travel a little bit in the early part of the year (I was in Singapore for the holidays, and made a short trip to Zurich to visit Stan in early March – back when there were just eight reported cases in Switzerland). I was originally slated to go back to Singapore for Easter, though of course that didn’t actually materialise.

We’re entering week 5 of the UK lockdown, and week 8 of working from home for me. Initially, the changes to my routine weren’t particularly serious (I was fortunate in that I had just come back from Switzerland – I normally travel once every 1-2 months, even if it’s just for a short weekend break).

The markets have also been pretty exciting, though I haven’t been thinking of them as much because of coronavirus (and perhaps that’s for the better, given the scale of the drops). I remember the first time I lost a month’s worth of investment contributions, but this was the first time I lost a year’s worth of them (on paper, at least). With increasingly stark economic data prints and forecasts, it’s a healthy reminder that movements in the market are often not about whether business/the economy are doing well or badly, but rather whether they are doing better or worse than expected (so if the consensus estimate is for a grade D and the actual performance is a C-, stocks could do well!).

In terms of logic contests, four Sudoku GPs have occurred, and my performance is probably not too different from last year. I’ve performed worse in terms of absolute number of points scored (I finished last year with 2502, four contests at 1565 would suggest 2347.5 as an overall score), but better in terms of ranking (61-50-74-71, overall 51; I finished 66th last year). I’m not sure if I’ve gotten any faster, really; in terms of strategies I wouldn’t say I could concretely identify a way I’m better now than I was last year. It’s possible the contests themselves have gotten harder, or the test solver pool has gotten faster (points are generally allocated based on how long test solvers take).

Similarly, four Puzzle GPs have been completed. I have been considerably less stable at puzzles; this hasn’t changed from last year, and has probably gotten worse in fact. I did worse in terms of absolute numbers of points scored (I finished last year at 1921, and four contests at 1205 implies 1807.5) and worse in ranking (139-154-71-141, overall 100; I finished 91st last year). I think my bad habits here involve being overly fearful of bifurcation. Puzzle choice is a bigger issue in these rounds than in Sudoku, since there are more options (even the best solvers frequently don’t actually solve everything). I tend to gravitate to number-heavy types like KenKen, Arithmetic Squares, Skyscrapers or Futoshiki because they feel comfortable, even though I’d say I’m fast at the first two but pretty bad at the last two.

Another hobby I’ve been pursuing is learning German. I took my A1 exam in Q1, and got a sehr gut (very good) grade with 100 percent. Perfekte Noten (perfect grades), as one might say. Lessons at Palantir continue and have been useful in ensuring that I have a more proper, structured framework for learning, as well as providing quality feedback on pronunciation and writing.

I started learning about Nebensätze (subordinate clauses) at the very end of last year to beginning of this year, and they’ve substantially broadened the range of things I can talk or write about. Wennals and ob (if/when – though not specifically previously, previously when, whether respectively) are very useful; weil (because) a bit less so since I already knew denn (because), but for some reason I find sentences with weil tend to roll off the tongue better. The practice of ending these clauses with the main verb (e.g. Ich weiß nicht, ob das gute Idee ist, weil ich vielleicht nicht genug Geld habe – I don’t know whether that is a good idea because I might not have enough money) currently requires me to build most of the sentence upfront, but the catharsis of unleashing the verb at the end feels great.

Social distancing has made me look at video games more, both in terms of games to play on my own as well as with friends. Interestingly, the concept of a rogue-like seems to be a common thread in three of the games which I’ve been playing a lot in Q1: Slay the SpireDicey Dungeons and Dead Cells. Games generally consist of individual runs that take from 15 to 60 or so minutes (Dicey Dungeons is probably on the faster end, Dead Cells can be much slower); there is some, but generally limited, progression across runs.

The first two are actually fairly similar in that combat is turn-based; the former involves deckbuilding, while the latter involves arranging equipment to maximise effectiveness of die rolls. The latter is very different and is much more focused on action and reflexes, which can be more appropriate if I don’t want to think as much. Slay the Spire, especially on super-hard modes, is quite a brain-burner.

These games are also similar in that they are reasonably easy at their base difficulty level – I think I had my first win of Slay the Spire on the third run, Dicey Dungeons on the very first run, and Dead Cells on the second run. I think I’d be able to win >95% of games on the easiest mode (Ironclad Ascension 0, Warrior level 1 and 0 Boss Cells, respectively). However, difficulty modifiers can make things very challenging: I’m pretty sure my win rate on Slay the Spire‘s Ascension 20 (max difficulty) is under 10%, and I’ve not completed Dead Cells with 4 Boss Cells (difficulty ranges from 0 to 5, increasing with each additional cell). There’s some evidence that I’ve gotten better at surviving what the game throws at me though, in that when I first started Ascension 20 and 3 Boss Cell mode looked completely impossible. Furthermore, I’d find the base modes mostly boring now, as even clear lapses in my play would be largely inconsequential – I think I enjoy a challenge.

The relative lack of travel also means that I haven’t listened to very much music recently. There are the fast-paced instrumentals that I listen to sometimes when implementing features (as opposed to design) – Destination Relapse is pretty good, even if the 200+ BPM track was written to be a really difficult rhythm game boss. To some extent similar would probably be Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No. 4 (here performed by Rousseau), which would probably make a good boss song if playing the piano in general was treated as a rhythm game. There’s a kind of unrelenting fury and incessant urgency in the closing streams of Relapse and throughout the Etude that appeals to me, and perhaps reflects a torrent of potentially creative destruction (incidentally, the Etude is sometimes given that moniker as well). For me, that does make sense considering what I’ve been looking at in terms of work.

Learning German 6: Einhundert! (100)

Ich habe meine A1 Deutschprüfung bestanden. Ich habe nicht nur bestanden, sondern 100 von 100 Punkte erreichen. Man muss in jedem Teil mindestens 60 Prozent erzielen, wenn man die Prüfung bestanden. Es gibt fünf mögliche Bewertungen. Am höchsten ist “sehr gut” (90-100). Aber ich weiß nicht, ob ich eine sehr gute Entscheidung über das Sprachniveau machte – vielleicht konnte ich die A2 Prüfung auch bestanden? Vor sechs Monaten wusste ich nicht, wie meine Deutschsprachkentnisse entwicklen würden.

I passed my A1 German exam. I didn’t just pass, but got 100 of 100 points. One must score at least 60 percent in each part of the exam to pass. There are five possible grades. The highest is “very good” (90-100). However, I don’t know if I made a “very good” decision about which level of the exam to take – maybe I could have passed the A2 exam. Six months ago, I didn’t know how my German skills would develop.

This is in general an issue with exams where candidates must decide what level to enter themselves at: I’ve run into this before for music, and also with German. It’s a shame that the Goethe-Institut (and as far as I know, other alternatives like the telc) exams aren’t generally equipped to provide assessment at other grades for very strong, or alternatively, just-unsatisfactory performances. This is less of an issue with the Cambridge English qualifications – in general, candidates can also obtain a grade N + 1 or N – 1 result when taking the exam for grade if they, respectively, score close to full marks or just miss the passing mark.

I made the decision on which exam to take about 6 months ago – the decision was between A1 and A2. I started by looking at the model papers available from the Goethe-Institut. I think my opinion at the time was that at that point, I could mostly smoothly navigate the A1; A2 would be a struggle, though there were still four months to the exam. The speaking section of A2 would, in particular, have been a struggle then; I think it would still be difficult if I had to do it now. I think I tried out the reading and listening sections of both papers in September last year, and scored 83% on A1 and 57% on A2. I’ve tried out the B1 level papers more recently for reading (and the telc grammar/sentence construction ones as well) and have been able to fumble my way through with about 80 percent, though of course it has been six months since then!

The European Council does publish a self-assessment rubric to help distinguish these levels, but I find the “can-do” descriptors a little vague and, more importantly, difficult for me to confidently assess. I’d generally be confident with most of the A2 descriptors now, and five months ago I think understanding would be at A2 while production (speaking and writing) would be somewhere in between A1 and A2. However, there still exist interpretations where I wouldn’t necessarily be confident of my ability at the A2 level. Consider the descriptor for spoken interaction, which includes “I can handle very short social exchanges, even though I can’t usually understand enough to keep the conversation going myself”. Many of my social interactions with friends involve puns, humour and sarcasm which I might completely miss if delivered in German. I don’t think this is part of the expectation at A2, but it isn’t explicitly stated.

I was somewhat risk-averse and picked A1, figuring that I would get this out of the way and I could still take A2 subsequently, or alternatively jump straight to B1. As mentioned, I think my German skills developed more than I expected over the next few months, perhaps because I spent more time doing self-study. This isn’t a bad result at all, but something like this instead of say an 85 or 91 really did make me think if A2 would have been the better decision. In any case, I can’t take it back, and the improvements to my skill level remain. (It is possible that I might have developed my skills further if I did the A2 exam in January, as I would need to push myself through catch-up classes or work, but it would also have been considerably more stressful.)

Different World (Thoughts on COVID-19)

I remember a recent trip where my mum came up to London to visit. It was bright, and we had a relaxed lunch in a Chinese restaurant with a glass ceiling. I thought of how my routine had significantly changed – I would naturally prioritise spending time with her, instead of working an extra hour, studying another hour of German, practicing another set of logic puzzles or just scrolling through eBay.

Similarly, the recent COVID-19 situation has changed things quite a fair bit for me, and I imagine the changes I’m exposed to are still relatively small compared to what many other people face.

The obvious change is working from home, which I’m not particularly a fan of (human contact is important, and pair programming remotely turns out to be really hard – especially for me if I’m doing this more in an instructional capacity, as I like to have newer team members code while I jump in as needed), but I understand it’s necessary given the circumstances. Being able to work from home is certainly a privilege of software engineering, among other jobs. In hindsight, having the ability to work at all is also a privilege, in light of the widespread shop closures that came into effect. The UK government’s proposals should help, but it’s still a 20 percent pay cut (more, if one is earning more than 30,000 a year) – and I don’t know how exactly things are going to work for people on zero-hours contracts or the self-employed.

There is then social distancing: I’d lump the aforementioned shop closures into it, as if it is decided that civil liberties should not be restricted, one can still give strong pushes by decreasing the desirability of engaging in the behaviours that one doesn’t want. I do have a few groups of friends that I meet outside of work, but so far at least the impact hasn’t been too bad – we’ve found alternatives such as doing it digitally which are to me inferior but are still better than nothing. The shop closures are annoying, but in any case I do most of my shopping, apart from groceries and food, online. It hasn’t massively changed a majority of my weekend programmes, because of what activities are involved (usually reading, puzzles, computer games or walks – note that the last of these can still go ahead subject to social distancing). The relative absence of people (which is good!) is highly noticeable.

Travel restrictions are another factor. I had to cancel my Singapore trip over Easter, because the government requires returning Singapore citizens to spend 14 days at home. This is reasonable, but is of course problematic if one’s intended stay is less than 14 days. I didn’t have any other immediate plans to travel, though would likely have drafted some for the bank holidays, perhaps to Germany or Zurich again. In a sense the timing of my Zurich trip was good: I returned just before the number of cases spiked. That’s probably going to be on the backburner – and I wonder if (assuming the airlines survive) prices will be reasonable as we get past the peak.

Grocery shopping has changed as well: a year ago hand soap would have been a mundane entry on a list while I now actively look out for it. I also tried to execute a Sainsbury’s delivery order earlier this week, and saw no availability for three weeks. It’s unclear if the worst has already passed – I’m seeing slightly more stock, maybe because most of the stockpiling has already happened, and supermarkets are actively ramping up the capacity of their food-stocking chains.

Incidentally this makes me think of some variant of the Prisoner’s Dilemma from game theory, where cooperating is not stockpiling and defecting is stockpiling. It’s best if no one stockpiles (since stockpiling has costs: the cost of carry – organising one’s supplies, finding space for them, making sure use-by dates are observed safely – and the opportunity cost of the money going into the supplies, assuming that investment performance outpaces inflation). Normally, this is the case. However, as more people stockpile, seeking to stockpile suddenly becomes rational: not stockpiling may mean that one is unable to obtain important provisions. The game is iterated, as well: one presumably visits supermarkets multiple times, and can see the state of supermarket shelves and derive an estimate of what people are buying.

There is also the recent fall of and heightened volatility on the stock market. I use a broker called De Giro that has a feature to send an email every time a position goes down by 10% (I think additively). I’ve seen a couple of cheerful 40% depreciation emails for some of the riskier assets there. It could be worse: IAG (owning BA, among others) stock is down 72 percent, and Lufthansa is down 65 percent. Interestingly Singapore Airlines is “only” down 40 percent. The numerical magnitude and speed of the damage here, especially if considered in US dollars (which strengthened aggressively) is probably a factor of 10 larger than what I’ve dealt with in the past. In a sense, the speed highlights the perception of loss, because a more drawn-out fall tends to be partially insulated by fresh contributions and pound-cost averaging. However, despite the scale of the numbers involved, they seem a bit further removed (an image of a bonfire of notes equal to the five figure sum would be more concerning).

We’ll see how things go. I guess I was too young to remember and/or make any significant decisions when dealing with SARS in 2002-2003: I was in Primary 6 then, and remember schools being closed briefly. Even when schools reopened there was twice-daily temperature taking and values had to be documented. The numbers of cases were much smaller (I think four-figures globally), though I remember it being somewhat more dangerous (contrast with UK government advice – and this is indeed true – that for most people COVID-19 will be mild).

One risk of FIRE pursuits and/or aggressive savings strategies is for some reason not being able to spend the money one has saved up later on. I’d say the financial strategy I’ve been using from 2016 to early 2020, though not at popular FIRE blogger levels, involves an aggressive savings strategy, and to some extent that risk has manifested. I certainly wouldn’t say it has caused a significant shift in my thinking, but it’s a good reminder that stockpiling of wealth as an end to itself tends to be unhelpful.