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October 2020

Trackless Path (Q3 2020 Review)

A quarter is a relatively fixed amount of time: three months. While certain quarters of the year are longer than others (Q3 and Q4 are ordinarily 92 days long while Q1 is 90 in non-leap years) the difference is still fewer than three percentage points. However, perception can differ, and for me Q3 seemed to pass by rather quickly. On one hand, with a relative scarcity of exciting events it might seem that things would drag; yet, a high volume of tasks at work and making concrete plans to enjoy as much as I could despite the circumstances meant that there was a constant stream of things to pay attention to. There was quite a lot more duplication in these tasks and plans than normal.


Software Engineering

In a sense, not very much has changed. Still on AtlasDB, still running the team, still doing storage things. However (and I think this is good) we’ve started more intensely looking at growth and development of team members, myself included. I think it’s useful to explicitly consider how team members should be seeking to improve; most of the validation that I’d been getting was along the lines of “there’s no dire feedback, and you haven’t been removed from your position, so you’re doing OK”. In a sense, it was refreshing to have a good amount of critical, constructive feedback, which I don’t normally get to hear. I’m also branching out more into other areas of work – in fact, a quick look at GitHub would show that I haven’t been making as many contributions to AtlasDB itself recently (and I also haven’t been slacking off!).

Also, PLTR’s direct listing happened on 30 September (disclaimer: I do own PLTR shares). This was fun and obviously storage is important for functioning, though I was informed that it had influence beyond just having systems working, and that makes sense. I didn’t join the company that early so I model it more as a tasty additional bonus, rather than a life-changing sum of money. That’s a nice segue into the next section…

Personal Finance

To some extent I’ve lost track of where things are going. One could argue that that’s part of the point of (mostly) passive investing – for the most part the portfolio does its work for you, giving you time to look at other things. I’ve just let most of the portfolio do what it’s been doing, and do the usual monthly rebalance. The direct listing is basically a cash injection, which I plan to cost average; while I know this isn’t generally optimal in terms of numerical outcomes, my utility curve is convex (that is, I will be <2x happier with 2x money). I haven’t been tracking expenses as closely as well, though I’m fortunate in that I naturally have quite a strong saving instinct.

I did a couple of things out of concern for budgeting-related tax changes. As mentioned when discussing Eat Out to Help Out, I strongly suspect higher taxes are on their way:

  • I maxed my S&S ISA for 2020/21. I’m normally a lot more diligent about this and do it in April, but this year let it slip for a good few months. The mechanism for doing this was a so-called “Bed & ISA” where you sell shares and repurchase them in an ISA. As part of this…
  • I used up most of my Capital Gains annual allowance (£12,300 this tax year). Unfortunately my assets haven’t been that productive that the Bed & ISA covered all of this. It’s still kind of awkward to see that the markets are performing well when the economy is struggling with COVID measures, but to paraphrase Newton, I cannot calculate the madness of men (or for that matter, know if it is madness).
  • I used up most of the pension tax relief cap (£40,000 this tax year BUT watch for tapering if you’re a high earner, AND you may be able to pull previous years’ allowance in). The main gamble here is that this says you’re willing to part with that money until you’re at an age where you’re allowed to draw from your pension. There’s also the risk of running foul of the lifetime allowance.
  • I ate out to help out (with suitable protection). There’s something around actually benefiting from the schemes which I’m paying for as part of my tax. I wouldn’t advocate creating an unnecessary burden on public facilities, but if it works well with my plans, I don’t see why I shouldn’t participate.

Recreational Pursuits

Deutsch lernen

Wenn man weniger Dinge tun kann oder darf, verbringt man vielleicht mehr Zeit mit den Dingen, die man tun kann. Ich verbrachte in Q3 mehr Zeit damit, Deutsch zu lernen, als in Q2. Ich setzte den Unterricht mit Katja fort, in die ich mein Sprechen und Schreiben besser verbessern kann, weil sie meine Aufgaben korrigieren wird. Ich übte auch mit ein paar Büchern von Hueber-Verlag, dem ein deutsches Verlag ist. Das letzte, an dem ich arbeitete, ist “Lesen und Schreiben B1”. Im Buch gibt es einige Texte über verschiedene Themen, z.B. Wohnen in Deutschland, Hobbys, Umweltverschützung. Diesen Themen sind relativ einfach, aber sie bieten eine interessante Lektüre. Ich habe auch B1 Modellprüfungen gemacht, in die ich Lesen und Hören sicherlich bestanden (am letztes Mal: 26/30, 29/30).

Früher hatte ich geplant, eine Reise zu einer Sprachschule in Deutschland zu machen, aber ich glaube, ich war bei der Arbeit sehr beschäftigt. Die Situation mit dem Coronavirus in England wird immer schlechter, deshalb bin ich nicht so sicher, ob ich in Q4 gehen kann. Deutschland könnte die Grenzen schließen, wenn der Trend anhält.

When one can or is allowed to do fewer things, one might spend more time on the things one can do. I spent more time in Q3 learning German than in Q2. I continued with the lessons with Katja; in them, I can better improve my speaking and writing because she corrects my work. I also practiced with a few books from Hueber-Verlag, a German publisher. The most recent one which I worked with is “Lesen and Schreiben B1”. There are texts about various themes in the book, like living in Deutschland, hobbies and environmental protection – these themes are relatively simple, but still make for interesting reading. I’ve also done practice exams for B1, and I’m safely passing Reading and Listening (last time: 26/30 and 29/30 respectively).

I had originally planned to make a short trip to a language school in Germany, but I think I got too busy at work. The coronavirus situation in England is getting worse and worse by the day, so I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to go in Q4. Germany might close the borders with England if the trend continues.

Sudoku and Logic Puzzles

The “season” for these puzzle contests seems to run from January until July or August it seems – I think normally this culminates in the World Sudoku and Puzzle Championships (these were on the 1st of October last year). Round 8 of the Sudoku GP happened and I put in another solid performance with rank 37 and 443 points, putting me at rank 52 overall with a score of 2536 (best six of eight scores). In some ways this is an incremental but sizable improvement over last year’s rank 66. I’m not sure that I’ve improved significantly – in fact I’d say speed solving has taken a bit of a back seat this year relative to other pursuits. The field might have gotten weaker as people got busy with other things, and/or I made incremental improvements that were enough to result in some progress.

There were some technical glitches on the general puzzles side of things in Q2, so there were three rounds in Q3 in which I placed 83, 96 and 66. Nonetheless, this was an improvement after a very flimsy start where I had rank 137 and 156 in my first two rounds. Despite still having to count a weak round 5 with 261 points, I had 2174 points overall, getting rank 89. I think the general approach I have for both Sudoku and Puzzles is to, after doing one or two warm-up puzzles, jump into hard stuff that looks interesting, and then re-evaluate after each puzzle and towards the end pick lower-value puzzles. This seems to work quite well in Sudoku but not so in Puzzles because I seem to be much better at hopelessly breaking a hard puzzle in general than a hard Sudoku. I think I shifted towards a more conservative strategy of tackling some medium puzzles before making a stab at one hard puzzle.

As mentioned, I’ve been spending less time on these this quarter (and more broadly this year). Some of this may be a function of work which I’m finding more challenging – puzzles are fun but of course do require quite a lot of complex reasoning.


I haven’t left London since my Zurich trip in March. It was a mixture of being busy at work and my favourite destinations maintaining travel restrictions for travellers from the UK (Singapore, Switzerland). I could have travelled to France and Spain earlier in the summer, and can still travel to Germany, but for some reason I haven’t really felt a desire to do it – keine Lust, as I would say in German.

Even within London I haven’t bothered to travel very much. I think I’ve taken the bus once when meeting Tom; it’s possible the last time I took the tube was in March before the lockdown. While I do walk quite a lot on weekends, my range is probably only about 8 km or so when one considers that I need to return. It tends to be the same few places that I’m comfortable with and/or have things to do or look at, like Eat Tokyo or Foyles.


I’ve gone through a number of German practice books: the aforementioned Lesen und Schreiben B1 (reading and writing), and also for exam preparation (even though I’m not sure why I’m preparing for B1 right now; I think it’s more as a form of assessment) a series called So geht’s noch besser (which means something like “it’s even better”).

Other than that, though, things may have narrowed a bit this quarter. In terms of titles, I can only recall Will Storr’s Selfie and Tim Hartford’s 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy (though both were very interesting pieces of work).

Rhythm Games

I used to play Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) very frequently when I was in Singapore, because I had a pad at home. At my peak, I was able to pass a couple of level 17 songs (songs are rated on a 1-19 scale where larger numbers indicate higher difficulty) – I even uploaded a video of one run.

I then went to university, so I didn’t have a pad any more. 8 years on, I’m also a fair bit heavier now (the thesis and joining Palantir were, for various reasons, not particularly good for my weight) and haven’t done exercise of this intensity for a long time – most of what I’ve been doing recently are relatively light jogs or long walks.

So trying to get back into things, my first port of call was MAX 300 Expert (level 15) which I saw as a bellwether of my DDR skills. The song is pretty straightforward in terms of footwork but demands a fair amount of stamina, having drills and simple runs at a rate of 10 hits per second. I failed, running out of stamina shortly after the stop. I found that I was back to around the level 12 range (which was a level I was at before I did National Service, roughly), and have worked my way back up to the easier end of 14s.


Perhaps to enhance the work from home environment, or because I’ve been doing a bit more individual development work in this quarter, I’ve generally found piano instrumentals when I’m working to be quite agreeable. I do sometimes like fast, aggressive pieces when I’m implementing something which I’ve scoped out, but generally quieter pieces tend to work better – as part of this I found two good channels, relaxdaily and BGMC; the former is a bit more specific to piano while the latter seems to cover “quiet background music” in general.

From a more artistic point of view, I found a cover of Britney Spears’ Everytime by a singer named Dave Winkler. I like the base song, and have found a number of covers in the past, but this is one of the most polished ones I can remember. Execution is solid throughout, and there’s a very pleasant, if small, improvised line at the end. He has quite a lot of covers on his channel as well, with a seeming rock slant. The quality across the board seemed pretty high as well.

There are also songs I like to listen to because of their energy. I occasionally go to a nearby arcade to play DDR, but most of the playing happens at home with a program called Stepmania. Through this, I’ve found music outside of the official DDR catalogue, including a number that I’ve liked. The one I’ve enjoyed the most this quarter is probably one called For UltraPlayers. I would not consider myself as one (the song was composed for the finals of one of the Konami rhythm game world championships), but the song is still enjoyable to both listen to and play. Many songs on DDR or even when I play Stepmania on keyboard seem to derive most of their difficulty from runs of notes that need to be hit quickly and accurately, called streams. The song runs at 201 BPM which is pretty fast (13.4 notes per second), but to spice things up, there are sections that use triplets or even sextuplets (these run at 20.1 notes per second) and one has to regularly switch back and forth.