Although just one quarter has passed (slightly less, in fact, since the last time I wrote), it’s felt much longer than that. I think the lockdown and working from home has meant that I’ve worked longer hours, and also that the weekdays blend into one another. The weekends are clearly different. However, they still seem less separated from the work-week.
This is of course central to Q2; although working from home began in early March (the company made a prescient decision!), the UK-wide lockdown only fully landed on the 24th, and is still slowly being eased. During March I travelled to Zurich, still visited the office sometimes and went out (including dining in in restaurants) freely.
Essentials and Non-Essentials
When the lockdown was first instituted, I imagined it would be psychologically very stressful. I would not call myself a libertarian, though my opinions to some extent trend in that direction. I think having a lockdown was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, as painful as curtailing one’s freedom of movement and civil liberties is. I’d be uneasy with saying people should have full freedom to decide how much coronavirus risk they should accept (and thus not have a lockdown at all, as was done in Sweden).
There has clearly been an impact on my activities, even putting aside working from home. I used to semi-regularly physically meet up with some old friends from Imperial, and also go for drinks with some colleagues at Palantir. These have been paused, and I’m not sure they will resume immediately from July 4. I’ve also had two planned summer holidays cancelled because of COVID-19 related issues (one to Singapore, and one to Austria and Hungary).
That said, the experience I’ve had with some more local activities has improved. Going out has been quite comfortable: the air is cleaner, there are fewer people and it is quieter. I’m reminded of my time in Zurich, actually. (There are other factors that would make me prefer to stay in London, though, at least for now.) I’ve also realised that physical non-essential retail and even dining in aren’t things I actually use that often. There is an exception of bookshops, though, because I still find the browsing and discovery experience far superior. I suspect I will miss some of this relative peace and quiet (as much as I realise that it’s unsustainable and bad for the economy).
It’s also worth noting how geographically distributed the friends I keep in touch with are. Of course, there was always a group based in Singapore – but for the Imperial group, by now more than half of them aren’t based in London. Thus, there was no real change in how we communicated, for the most part.
Working from Home
This is hardly news, but I’m still on AtlasDB. I’ve written about this before, but I do miss working in a physical office: pairing and iterating closely on features is a lot easier in person. The office also serves as a great forcing function to get me to leave at the end of the day, as its emptiness does make me ask myself if I should still be around. It is also a useful crutch in encouraging separation between work and non-work.
There were a couple of changes here, as adapting to a work-from-home environment focused my time more. Paring down the number of things I’m juggling has helped significantly (there are still quite a few, but I don’t mind it that way). Previously I had a large number of tasks that I could barely keep tabs on, let alone contribute actively to. I think I’ve been holding things down reasonably well.
I did push myself a bunch of times in ways which I knew to be unsustainable. I would still maintain that some of these heroics were justified, though I need to be better at easing off after such “surges”. I think my working hours can easily hit 70+ during a surge, with the intention of having a 40-hour week after that…. that ends up turning out around 55 or 60 still.
I had had my concerns about job stability as well. I’m fortunate that my position is reasonably secure, and there are backup mechanisms in that I would be able to survive getting furloughed (of course that would be pretty unpleasant). The high, if admittedly not quite FIRE-style savings rates I’d been maintaining should help.
Stocks have been volatile, and so has the pound (it now seems to be a ‘risk-on’ currency, which makes sense given Brexit uncertainty – even though it’s undervalued in PPP terms). I haven’t looked at my portfolio closely, and have continued with the standard mechanical monthly contributions and occasional rebalancing. Similarly, things like salary sacrifice have been chugging on as normal.
The expenses side of the balance sheet is much more interesting, if unsurprising. I’ve adhered closely to the lockdown rules, so the transport category (which normally covers tube and bus usage) has crashed to 0.00 for this quarter. My last Tube journey was from Heathrow Airport at the beginning of March. Similarly, the travel category is at 0.00. On the other hand, expenditure on entertainment (computer games, primarily) has doubled, and that on books has tripled from normal levels.
The main increase, however, is in groceries; I spent more on groceries in April 2020 alone than I did for the entire year of 2019. This was a short-term increase because of some stockpiling, and the grocery bill for May and June is much lower. I’m aware that I used to have lunches and dinners provided in Palantir and usually cooked two meals a week, but the increase has still been by more than a factor of seven.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report on a Minimum Income Standard in the UK for 2019 suggests that a single person’s weekly budget for food and non-alcoholic drinks would come in at around £49.64. I was spending about £7 per week in 2019 – multiplying by seven to account for the increased number of meals that clocks in at just about the standard.
I’ve now been spending more than that (I’d say a stable level for me is probably about £60-65 per week now). Some of the items involved are definitely treats, like black cod with miso from the Japan Centre, or fancy Korean ramyeons from Oseyo. It’s certainly quite a change from first year at Imperial though, where I made things work on £7 a week (for all meals!) for a full term. It’s almost a 10x increase.
I continued my lessons with Palantir until the end of May. I then decided to continue taking lessons with Katja. I’ve found her to be a great teacher because she has been able to adapt to my iteration speed (which is generally quite high and involving nontrivial amounts of homework). We’re most of the way through the A2 course book, though I like to think my reading at least is probably at B1. I even tried to do the Goethe-Institut B2 practice test for reading and got 23 of 30 (an okay pass)! Unfortunately my productive skills (speaking and writing) definitely aren’t there yet. We now have a summer break. I have to prepare a presentation and a book report! I’m hoping to reach B2 by end of next year.
Ich fortsetzte meinen Unterricht bei Palantir bis Ende Mai. Dann entschied ich mich, die Deutschstunden mit Katja weitermachen. Ich fand, dass sie eine gute Deutschlehrerin ist, weil sie meine Schnelligkeit, die ziemlich hoch ist und mit viel Hausaufgaben zu tun, benutzen konnte. Ich habe den großen Teil des A2-Kurzbuchs gelernt. Obwohl ich gerne denke, dass meine Lesekenntnisse zumindest wahrscheinlich auf B1 liegen. Ich sogar probierte die Goethe-Institut B2 Modellprüfung für das Lesen. Ich erreichte 23 von 30 Punkte – das ist genug, wenn man bestanden möchte. Meine produktive Sprachkenntnisse (Sprachend und Schreiben) unbedingt sind nicht auf B1. Wir machen jetzt eine Sommer-Pause. Ich muss eine Präsentation und einen Buchbericht vorbereiten! Ich hoffe, dass ich bis Ende nächsten Jahres B2 erreichen werde.
Sudoku and Logic Puzzles
I haven’t been doing these much outside of the various contests. I’m still on rank 49 in the Sudoku GP after seven rounds, though I don’t think I’ll be able to have a top 50 finish (as the aggregate score is derived from one’s best six rounds, and there are a couple of people slightly behind on the leaderboard whose score was derived from five rounds). I think my performances in these were generally solid, if nothing exceptional (rank 47 in round 5, 39 in round 6, 40 in round 7). Still, it looks like there’ll hopefully be a big improvement over last year’s rank 66.
There was a technical issue (I think?) on the general Puzzles side so only five rounds have taken place. I’m at rank 102 which is worse than last year. I’ve been pretty inconsistent (rank 137, 156, 71, 141, 124 for the five rounds); not sure why.
The UK Sudoku (where I finished with rank 28) and Puzzle (rank 39) Contests 2020 also took place. Both went quite smoothly for me, Sudoku slightly more so. I also had some experience with designing logic puzzles (I’ve written for the Palantir puzzlehunt before, but the previous ones I wrote were largely steganography-based). I have read parts of Selinker and Snyder’s Puzzlecraft, and it felt gratifying to see test-solvers reason through exactly the same path of logic I intended (though the puzzle had to be changed a bunch of times because the intended solution path, although entirely deducible one step at a time, was quite narrow).
Here’s a list of some of the books I’ve been reading in Q2, and attempted short summaries:
- General Reading
- Stuffocation: Living More with Less (James Wallman): Spending on experiences like tourism and travel with friends is generally more worthwhile than spending on things. This is claimed to be something that people are trending towards.
- Start Now, Get Perfect Later (Rob Moore): Indecision and the fear of failure can often be obstacles to starting doing things at all, even though that is often the best way to build a good solution in the end. Thus, as the book’s title says, start now, and get perfect later.
- Science the Shit Out of Life (Colin Stuart, Mun Keat Looi): Algorithms are fun and can be deployed for profit. Sometimes it’s unclear what to do beyond running experiments – in that case it can be interesting to run experiments.
- Faust: das Volksbuch (Achim Seiffarth): B1 graded reader – Faust is a brilliant scholar, both of medicine and of black magic. He ends up making a pact with the Devil: he will get whatever he wants for 24 years on earth (subject to some conditions), but then the Devil will take his soul thereafter. Of course, this does not end well.
- Deutsch für Besserwisser A2 (Anneli Billina): A revision of grammar at the A2 level; in terms of conjunctions, prepositions, declination and the passive voice. There are quite a few exercises to practice.
- Wie man Deutscher wird in 50 Einfachen Stritten (Adam Fletcher): Descriptions of some common stereotypes about German culture. The book is written in both English and German, so I usually read the German version of each chapter first, and then check my understanding against the English version.
- Puzzlecraft (Mike Selinker, Thomas Snyder): A puzzle is a battle between the solver and the creator where the solver always wins; the onus is on the creator to make that win satisfying. This should account for the solver’s intended experience level, and there are a number of puzzle-specific techniques that can be exploited to this end.
- How to Solve It (George Polya): There are a collection of heuristics that people can use when approaching mathematical problems (or possibly problems in general). These are useful both for attempting to solve problems ourselves, as well as teaching others how to solve problems that they may run into.
Well. This was expectedly non-existent in Q2. Let’s see what happens in Q3: from the 10th of July travel to a number of countries on the government’s travel corridor list is permitted without the need for quarantine. However, the country on the other end also needs to allow me in, and my combination of being a Singapore national but a UK resident means that I have to be very careful when reading the rules. For example, the German Auswärtiges Amt (foreign office) notes explicitly that “The question of whether travel to Germany is permitted depends on where the person travelling has previously been staying, not on their nationality”, so I’m good there (and the general EU guidance is also as such). Switzerland, on the other hand, would not allow me in: to quote the UK Foreign Office guidance, “Travellers from the UK who do not have UK/EU/EFTA nationality will not be permitted to enter Switzerland, however there are some exceptions”. There are some even more nuanced rules – in Denmark, for instance, “if you enter as a tourist, you need to document a holiday stay for at least six nights”.
Tourism in the UK is also a very valid option, and one that I haven’t really explored much beyond the odd day trip when my parents were around, or as part of events at work; this would likely be easier, and would be good for the local economy as well.
Not much here. There’s an acoustic cover of Through the Fire and Flames that I’ve liked – I’m not always feeling up to listening to the full DragonForce track, but there’s a nice melody there, and I find the execution here mostly clean and very listenable. I hadn’t found a more relaxed version of Fury of the Storm, which I prefer.
Board and Computer Games
I played quite a bit more of these because of the lockdown. There’s a trend in challenging (ish) roguelikes – Dead Cells, Dicey Dungeons and Enter the Gungeon and possibly to some extent Darkest Dungeon were the games I spent the most time on this quarter. I also had a couple of sessions of Overcooked 2 and Tabletop Simulator (playing Hanabi, Pandemic and The Crew: The Search For Planet 9 primarily) with friends – the theme in the board games seems to be cooperative games and possibly difficult ones, which I generally tend to like.
The Crew in particular seems to have gone over quite well with a number of friends I’ve played it with. It is a cooperative trick taking game: the players collaborate to achieve constraints on the flow of tricks. For example, a specific card may need to be won by a specific player, or specific players may have to win specific tricks. This has to be achieved with only very limited communication between players regarding the contents of their hands: a player generally has one clue token per hand, and can use it to indicate that a given card is their highest, single or lowest card of the relevant suit.
It’s perhaps not as directly involved as tracking information in Hanabi (especially when considering negative information clues), though there are similar elements: playing hard missions often involves thinking about why the other player(s) might have done something, and then acting based on those thoughts. Playing the cards themselves does remind me of bridge; there’s often a need to figure out how to draw out certain suits or pass control from one hand to another. Players may have tasks to win a low card that they hold, which usually requires other players to be void in the suit (if multiple players end up in this situation, the hand may be unwinnable – though usually that suggests poor allocation of tasks).