Learning German 9: Unzufriedenheit der Trägheit (Dissatisfaction of Inertia)

Ich möchte manchmal schneller Deutsch lernen. Ich wollte letztes Jahr die A2-Prüfung machen. Aber ich habe es damals wegen des Coronavirus nicht gemacht – die Prüfungen wurden abgesagt. Im Unterricht haben wir “Begegnungen A2+” beendet und haben nun mit dem B1-Lehrbuch begonnen. Ich habe ungefähr ein Viertel des Materials gelernt. Außerdem habe ich mir alle 76 Folgen einer Online-TV-Serie der Deutschen Welle, die “Nicos Weg” heißt, angesehen und die angehängten Übungen gelöst. Die Serie ist für Lernende, die das Niveau B1 erreichen wollen und schließt mit einem Test ab, bei dem ich 89% erreicht habe. 

Ich habe ein paar Modellprüfungen bei dem B1 Niveau gemacht. Normalerweise bekomme ich beim Lesen und Hören mindestens 90 Prozent der Punkte. Ich finde, dass die Schreiben-Aufgaben nicht zu schwierig sind. Die Texte, die man schreiben muss, sind relativ kurz (insgesamt circa 200 Wörter) und man hat eine Stunde dafür. An der anderen Seite sieht die mündliche Prüfung sehr anspruchsvoll aus. Ich weiß nicht, ob ich sie bestehen würde, wenn ich sie heute machen würde. Ich habe das über A1 gesagt und dann allerdings 100 Prozent bekommen, aber B1 ist viel schwieriger. Ich möchte die B1-Prüfung später in diesem Jahr machen. B1 ist gut, denn es ist wichtig für die Einwanderung.

Sometimes, I would like to learn German more quickly. Last year, I wanted to do the A2 exam. However, I did not at that time because of the coronavirus; the exams were cancelled. In class we’ve finished “Begegnungen A2+” and have now started with the B1 textbook. I have covered about a quarter of the material there. Additionally, I’ve also watched all 76 episodes of an online TV series from the Deutsche Welle called “Nico’s Weg” and completed the attached exercises. The series is for learners who want to reach level B1 and concludes with a test, in which I scored 89 percent.

I have done a few B1 practice papers. Normally, I score at least 90 percent in reading and listening. I find that the writing tasks are not too difficult. The texts that one has to write are relatively short (in total about 200 words) and one has one hour for that. On the other hand, the oral exam looks very challenging. I don’t know if I would pass if I took it today. I did say that about A1 and got 100%, but B1 is a lot harder. I would like to do the B1 exam later in this year. B1 is good, because it is important for immigration.


Measuring one’s language skills, and perhaps more importantly what one can do with a language is always challenging. At the beginning, there were clear milestones for improvement: I’d learn a phrase or expression that would be useful (e.g. Ich komme aus Singapur, which means I come from Singapore), or alternatively learn new vocabulary items (e.g. gelb means yellow). Towards the end of A1 this shifted towards building constructions with connectors (e.g. Ich kann Chinesisch sprechen, weil ich es in der Schule gelernt habe – I can speak Chinese, because I learned it in school); various other types of constructions and connectors came in in A2 and B1, which added trickier structures (e.g. Je mehr ich lese, desto mehr lerne ich – the more I read, the more I learn; adjectives can generally be converted to nouns by adding a d in the right place e.g. reisen means to travel; der Reisende means the traveller).

Of course, there are still new vocabulary items that are coming in. As part of homework I learned the words Oberschenkel and Unterschenkel for the parts of the leg above and below the knee (thigh and calf, respectively). Progress, however, now appears less directly measurable in that I’ve covered (whether in class or externally) most of the required grammar for B1. I’m not particularly surprised or confused by say the passive voice, a statement in future tense or adjective endings, even if it may take me a while to be certain that I’ve done it correctly when writing a sentence (similarly, accuracy when speaking may not be good). There are still some areas where I know that I have not learned the grammar yet (e.g. Konjunktiv I, which is a tense often used in reported speech), but these generally seem less urgent.

I think the key areas for improvement on my end involve fluency and accuracy, which are a lot more difficult for me to assess. I know that when saying I would like the red apple that I can’t just say Ich möchte den rot Apfel; the adjective needs to be declined, and the correct version is Ich möchte den roten Apfel. However, I might accidentally say Ich möchte den rote Apfel, and I might not know that I had made a mistake (and, even though it may seem a bit primitive, communication would probably be achieved). My German teacher would of course catch and point out such a mistake, but I don’t know if others would. I’m also fairly confident with the connectors as used independently, but am somewhat less certain when stacking them – for example, in my most recent essay, I wrote

Obwohl ich die Wohnungen nicht persönlich besichtigen wollte, ging ich trotzdem, weil ich glaube, dass Fotos und Texte kein Ersatz sind.

This means “although I didn’t want to view the apartments personally, I went nonetheless, because I believe that photos and text (descriptions) are not a substitute (for that)”. Getting a sentence like this right is still difficult for me in German, which is problematic for me because I often want to express ideas following a similar pattern.

There is a related point on vocabulary. At some point in primary school, I was given the advice to, as far as reasonable, avoid repeating words. For example, my good friend and I went to a good restaurant, where I had a good steak; depending on the actual details, something like A close friend and I went to an exquisite restaurant, where I had a masterfully executed steak would sound more interesting and engaging. I’m starting to have to deal with this issue in German as well; initially I was happy to be able to simply get my ideas across, but I’ve now been asked to vary my ideas and expressions more. I think the verb I have the most problems with is finden (to find, both in the sense of locating something and drawing a conclusion from experiences – this second usage is difficult). I know that glauben and denken (believing and thinking respectively) are often OK, but I find (pun intended) that they don’t have quite the same tone or mood.

In general, it seems my compositions have had a bit less red ink on them, which is good – though progress certainly isn’t as clearly measurable as it was many months ago.

Burning Smoke (Q1 2021 Review)

Q1 2021 hasn’t been the best of quarters, not directly because of any specific negative events or occurrences, but because I haven’t really been in a position to make active progress towards some of the longer-term goals I’ve had. I think there has been too much routine; the days, then weeks have blurred into one long stretch of what seems to be fumbling in the dark. At least for work and for the pursuit of said goals, I tend to have a consistent sense of urgency. This is normally a strength, but recently progress has been slow and that is a point of frustration.

Software Engineering and Finance

Things seem to be running more smoothly at work, and that’s great: my main reticence with delegating tasks centers around a lack of confidence that they would be done in the way I want them to (even when this isn’t necessary). While I still struggle, I do find it easier to set things down and believe that they will be done well – perhaps because increasingly I have good reason to do so, even if I still end up overpaying the overheads of checking things it’s at least a good first step. Some of this is also because it’s necessary: the team’s velocity has improved considerably, to the point where I’m not easily able to keep up with all of the details of the various features that are being built at a time. This is definitely good though: I’m certainly happy that velocity is higher. Sometimes I get comfortable when things are too comfortable, but this is not one of those times – I wouldn’t mind if things ran a little bit cooler in the short run given the other things that are going on. Working from home remains a bit of a bugbear, though it’s manageable, and in general the relative loss of social contact continues to weigh on my mood here.

Finance-wise ‘meh’ describes Q1 well. I guess the point of passive investing is that to some extent it’s boring, and I have some fun if questionable plays (small cap value ETFs, funky REITs, cryptos!) in my satellite portfolio. Expenses are at normal levels – slightly lower than last year, though probably explainable from lack of holidays and me finding that I probably have way more clothes than I should. The tax year is at its end, though I’ve dealt with most of the main action items (ISA balance and CGT allowance – though a mandatory redemption and some gains on PLTR shares actually messed things up a bit here).

Deutsch

Ich bin relativ sicher, dass mein Lesen und Hören auf dem B1-Niveau sind. Ich habe eine Modellprüfung aus einem Buch, das “So geht’s noch besser B1” heißt, gemacht. In dieser Prüfung habe ich 28 von 30 Fragen in beiden Teilen richtig beantwortet. Ich würde gerne nach Deutschland reisen, vielleicht für einen Urlaub oder für einen kurzen Sprachkurs. Aber das ist im Moment nicht möglich, wegen des Coronavirus. In diesem Bereich ist Großbritannien jetzt tatsächlich besser (und das hat ich nicht erwartet!). Hoffentlich wird die Situation im Sommer besser sein. Wenn ich kann, möchte ich am Ende dieses Jahres die B2-Prüfung versuchen. Ich weiß, dass ich dafür noch viel verbessern muss.

I’m relatively confident that my reading and listening skills are at the B1 level. I did a practice paper from a book called “So geht’s noch besser B1”. In this exam I correctly answered 28 of 30 questions in both of these parts. I’d like to travel to Germany, maybe for a holiday or a short language course. However, that’s not currently possible because of the coronavirus. In this area the UK is actually doing better (unexpectedly). Hopefully the situation will be better in the summer. If I can, I’d like to attempt the B2 examination at the end of the year, realising that that still requires a lot of improvement.

In class we’re now going through Aspekte|neu B1, and I’m finding the material mostly approachable (though there’s still enough new material that I’m learning). Over Q1 I’ve also watched all 76 of the B1-level episodes of Nico’s Weg, a German series from the Deutsche Welle (DW). Each episode is accompanied with exercises that cover both grammar and vocabulary. Interestingly I’d already covered a majority of the grammar when I worked through Deutsch für Besserwisser A2 about 15 months ago, and the B1 book more recently. The only new grammar concept I remember learning was Konjunktiv I, a mechanism for reusing verbs as adjunctions (among other uses which I probably haven’t covered yet). For example, you could describe me as ein tippender Mann as I’m typing this. The course was still definitely very useful, though, as it introduced a fair bit of new vocabulary across a variety of themes. I’ve now started on the aiming-towards-B2-level Ticket nach Berlin, a reality TV series about travelling through Germany and it quite is a bit more difficult! There are probably some etymological reasons for this, but a trap I remember coming across in episode one was that zunächst actually means first (while nächst means next) – I’d normally use zuerst for first (which is also valid).

Sudoku and Puzzles

I performed somewhat inconsistently in the Sudoku and Puzzle GPs (as always, more consistent in Sudoku). Three rounds in I’m at rank 62 in sudoku and 91 in puzzles, which I’d say is a little weak for sudoku (but then I do feel I have not been performing well there) and within expectations for puzzles. The Logic Masters India ones have been interesting in a different way: the Sudoku ones have generally gone smoothly (including a recently easy though I think very well crafted round 3 where I finished a 90-minute test in 59 minutes and was still only ranked in the 40s) while the Puzzles ones have been tough for me. I think I scored 40 or so in the Loops round and 60-something in the recent Regions round, and these in relative terms weren’t very bad scores (compare with Loops a few years ago where I was able to claim the time bonus).

There hasn’t been much in the way of memorable puzzles. This is at the end of the quarter, but this Killer Su-do-ku (stylised as such; the dashes indicate the presence of negative numbers) by Michael Rios was probably one of the meatiest ad most satisfying ones that I’ve solved completely logically. Once puzzles pass a difficulty threshold that generally isn’t that high, especially in the context of a contest I tend to end up doing casework as I find that that’s faster. I have watched a couple of videos from GM Puzzles and it can be interesting to see how Thomas Snyder, an actual grandmaster approaches the puzzles. Some of the modulo-based arguments in pentomino division puzzles while simple in concept (placing a pentomino in a given orientation means that one has to partition a N cell area with pentominoes where N is indivisible by 5 meaning that that orientation is wrong) can be difficult to spot.

Board Games

The group of us that used to play Spirit Island (hereafter SI) at work seems to have switched to Gloomhaven (GH). I’d heard much about GH before; it was ranked #1 on BoardGameGeek for some time, though I hadn’t played it previously. I do enjoy both, though their focuses feel different. It does feel to me that SI requires more strategic thinking though I could just be missing a lot of depth in GH: having to decide and sequence four powers and an innate in SI has seemed much more complex than anything I’ve had to reason through in GH. The GH systems are trickier to work with, to the point that there are online tests to verify that one understands the AI system correctly, and some of the decisions the system makes are unintuitive. In particular, characters that are performing a move but not an attack move as though they intend to do a melee attack, meaning that healing characters can sometimes move nearer the front-lines of combat than they need to be. We’ve played both games at a fairly high difficulty (SI would often be at difficulty 8-10; we’re currently playing GH at difficulty +2 and have something like a 15-1 scenario completion record even with a lot of inefficiency).

Separately, the roleplaying aspects of GH and its progression system, being able to permanently enhance actions in ways that persist across game sessions, are compelling. I’ve been playing a rat-like creature called a Mindthief that seems to have psychic abilities, though her strengths really seem to lie in dealing large amounts of direct damage – the phrase “glass cannon” comes to mind. Games of SI, at least in their original form, are separate (some of the powers do certainly feel thematic – I remember playing with Shadows Flicker Like Flame’s Amorphous aspect in particular to aggressively use strong Range 0 powers).

GH is also semi-cooperative (while SI is, as far as I can tell, fully cooperative): individual player characters have agendas that may be conflicting, even if they’re rarely entirely conflicting. Some of the most interesting games have been ones where because of individual objectives I want the team to do well but not too well, leading to slightly more self-serving behaviour. One could even invent unforced errors, though I don’t think I’ve actually done that.

Music

Top of my playlist (and perhaps gaining traction because of recency bias) in Q1 was 優しい彗星 (Yasashii Suisei / “beautiful comet”, perhaps?), by a Japanese pop duo called YOASOBI. It is the ending theme to an anime called BEASTARS – I generally don’t watch anime and this isn’t an exception, so I didn’t find it through that. I’m not particularly sure how I discovered it actually – this was probably a result of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm as I did listen to another of their songs called たぶん (Tabun / “probably” or “maybe”) quite a bit, because it works really well for DDR. For some reason, songs with triplet or sextuplet rhythms especially when syncopated seem interesting for this, because I’ve played quite a number of variants of “130-150 bpm, occasional 16th runs” type of level 14 and 15 songs and they feel quite similar. In any case, the vocalist Ayase has a great voice.

I don’t speak or understand Japanese at all, so I’m not in a position to comment on the quality of the songwriting. There exist pretty good English covers too, like this one by Will Stetson. The content is fairly depressing but also seems to have some kind of “grim determination”, to quote one of the commenters – which isn’t too different from how Q1 2021 was for me. Hopefully as vaccination continues to roll out things will improve.

Ordering the Chaos (2020 Review)

Personally, the year I find most similar to 2020 was 2011. In both of these years, for various reasons the range of activities I could choose from was externally limited (in 2011 because of National Service and in 2020 the coronavirus), and I thus focused strongly on work and personal development. In 2011, this amounted to reading up a fair bit on mathematics and computer science before I started full-time at Imperial, which made most of first year fairly light; I caught up on the gaps in my knowledge from not having taken Further Mathematics in my IB years, and also learned a fair bit about Java and discrete mathematics. In 2020, I think I improved a lot at work in terms of how I manage a team, to the point where I’d question a good number of the approaches I used in 2019. I also spent more time than I expected refining my German skills.

Software Engineering

Transactional Storage

I am still a software engineer, still at Palantir, and still working on databases. This marks 4.25 full-time years there, 4 of which were spent on AtlasDB or Transactional Storage. I’ve continued to find working on the team interesting and challenging, both as the team’s remit has expanded (especially this year!) and my responsibilities in keeping things running and improving, as other engineers decided it was time for them to move on. I also became a people lead; in a sense, it’s nice to be a relative junior again, in this way. A junior senior, if you will.

AtlasDB merged with another internal team to form Transactional Storage; this made sense as there was often work crossing product boundaries, and also support rotations could be handled with a bit more breathing room. There was a double lead structure which was interesting; we were certainly in a place where we trusted each other to work on projects, and at least on my end I was comfortable with maintaining very minimal context on any projects the other lead was overseeing. That said collaboration was a bit more limited to support and a project at the end of the year. He then decided it was time to move on, which means that treating ongoing projects as such isn’t really an option any longer.

The company has started to become a fair bit more critical about individual growth and performance, and we’ve had monthly reflection exercises about this (for me this entails sessions for each team member with them, plus sessions with my lead and group-leads about myself). I’ve found these useful in terms of forcing myself to sit down and write feedback, though the monthly cadence can be quite a lot of work since I have to do five of these reflections each month and I generally try to put a lot of effort into them.

Working from Home

A big change this year was of course working from home; we started at the beginning of March (three weeks before the UK lockdown) and that continued throughout the year, even through the summer (and of course the fall/winter with the second/third/Nth waves). Before this I had a fairly full calendar, with a lot of syncs, coffees and external events; many of these were cancelled or stopped, and a consequence of this was I spent a lot more time working directly with the team. This involved daily pairing sessions with the newest member of the team as well as less regular sessions with others; if I was to help guide a team today this is how I would probably do it, unless everyone on the team was very experienced and independent. It wasn’t something I anticipated last year, perhaps because I thought everyone on the team was very experienced and independent anyway; I had the shortest tenure in terms of industry experience at that time!

Working from home was probably not good in terms of raw efficiency when I was working on a specific task – there, the comfort of the office, the quality of the network connections and the availability of external resources where needed was high. Of course, collaborating on an original design was going to be a lot more difficult, which I think meant that for some features a lot more needed to be written down in RFCs, or I ended up doing more of the scoping than I would like. However, it did serve as a forcing function to strip away things that may or may not have been necessary, and in this way I think I still reached overall 80-90% efficiency compared to what I would have in the office.

I am skeptical of the claim that this exercise reflects which activities are necessary and which are not, though; until late in the year when we started to create more opportunities for social interaction team morale felt much weaker than it was in the office, and even now I don’t think it’s on the same level. Furthermore, on a technical level I think there’s value in being able to have spontaneous in-person discussions that may run across teams, which hasn’t really been the case here.

Recreational Pursuits

Logic Puzzles

I’ve continued to participate in puzzle contests. On the Sudoku side of things I’m pretty consistent; in the Sudoku GPs this year I moved up from rank 66 to 52, and also finished at rank 28 in the UK Sudoku championships. The more general Puzzle division is much more unstable with a Puzzle GP rank of 89, which is an improvement over last year’s rank 92 though it hardly feels like one. There are certain types which I can do probably just as quickly as Sudoku (like TomTom or Star Battle), and then some which I just don’t seem to get (like anything involving drawing snakes). I used to practice puzzles a lot more aggressively, often burning through multiple 90- or 100-minute puzzle sets each week. I still find them fun and relaxing, though I don’t do as many as in the past. This is probably a balancing issue: my hobbies were previously primarily sudoku and puzzles, while now they have to contend with Deutsch, board games and quite a few more things.

As in previous years, I also wrote a puzzle for the Palantir Puzzlehunt. This year’s puzzle Salt Fat Acid Heat was unfortunately a fair bit easier than originally intended: it involved three connected 6×6 Thermo Sudokus. My goals here were twofold: (1) have a puzzle without numerical clues, and (2) have connected puzzles that were only uniquely solvable together. I thought I reached a nice design which had a deduction involving all three grids at the same time, though this proved too hard in playtesting and was thus scaled back. Feedback on the puzzle was expectedly divided, with praise for elegance and complaints for being too classical, and remarks on the difficulty (even though it was already simplified).

Deutsch

In diesem Jahr war die Entscheidung, Deutsch weiter zu lernen, schwieriger als im letztes, weil ich selbst bezahlen muss. Wegen des Coronavirus hört Palantir meinen Sprachkurs auf. Ich setzte meine Deutschstunden mit Katja fort, denn ich finde, dass sie gut und schnell lehren kann. Ich weiß nicht genau, wie gut mein Deutschkentnisse jetzt sind. Ich bestand die A1-Prüfung mit 100 Prozent, und beim Deutschstunde beendeten wir das A2-Kursbuch. Ich las Bücher und machte Ubungen auf dem B1 (z.B. Deutsch für Besserwisser B1, Hueber Lesen und Schreiben B1), und ich probierte (und bestand, aber nur mit 70 Prozent!) die B2 Leseprüfung. Ich bin sicher, dass ich B2 nicht erreichte. Auch nicht zum Lesen: ich kann nicht auf Deutsch “zeitgenössische literarische Prosatexte” verstehen. Ich bin wahrscheinlich B1 für Lesen, Hören und vielleicht Schreiben, aber nur A2 für Sprechen.

Ich bin viel besser in der Grammatik als noch vor einem Jahr. Damals lernte ich gerade wie man “weil”, “deshalb” oder “ob” benutzen – jetzt verwende ich diese Konstrukte leicht. Es gibt Dingen, z.B. Passiv und Adjektivendungen, das ich noch ein bisschen komisch finde. Aber wenn ich einfache Dinge sagen will, ist es kein Problem.

This year, the decision to continue learning German was more difficult than last year. This was because I had to pay out of my own pocket. Palantir stopped the language courses because of the coronavirus. I continued my lessons with Katja because I find she can teach well and quickly. I don’t know exactly where my German skills stand. I passed the A1 exam with 100 percent, and in the German lessons we’ve finished the A2 book. I’ve read books and done practice exercises at the B1 level (e.g. in Deutsch für Besserwisser B1, Hueber Lesen und Schreiben B1), and I even tried and passed the B2 reading exam (though with only 70 percent). I’m sure that I haven’t reached B2 though, not even for reading. I cannot read and understand “modern literary prose” in German. I’m probably B1 in reading, listening and maybe writing, but only A2 in speaking.

I am much better in grammar as compared to one year ago. At that time, I had just learned how to use “because”, “therefore” and “whether”; now I use these constructs easily. There are things like the passive voice and adjective endings that I still find a little unusual. However, when I want to say something simple, it is not a problem.

Board Games

One of the activities that I’ve been doing somewhat more this year is playing board games with friends. Expectedly, most of this has been remote on Tabletop Simulator. There have been two games that have been particularly successful in the gaming sessions I’ve had with my friends:

  • Spirit Island, a cooperative game about repelling invaders from a natural island (or, depending on how one sees it, optimally crafting and scheduling database transactions), and
  • The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine, a cooperative trick-taking game where the goal is usually to ensure that specific nominated players win specific cards.

I’d played some Spirit Island before this year, but I had more sessions this year and have become a lot more comfortable with the game mechanics. I used to stick primarily with a few spirits that I knew how to play quite well (River Surges in Sunlight, Lightning’s Swift Strike, A Spread of Rampant Green) but have had a lot of fun with some of the newer spirits with the various expansions. Stone’s Unyielding Defiance feels very powerful, even if the gameplay is a bit onenote. Playing Shifting Memory of Ages is exciting, if at times very dependent on major power card draws, and to me feels like a more fun version of Vital Strength of the Earth. Downpour Drenches the World is enjoyable in its own right, essentially denying invaders progress and then repeating a power five times. I think these three are probably my latest set of “fun” spirits. Some of my teammates used to play the game a lot in the office; more recently, we’ve had a few sessions remotely. The game has a lot of moving parts, but is essentially a big and, to me at least, engaging optimisation puzzle (that admits pretty suboptimal solutions, fortunately).

The Crew on the other hand has been primarily played with friends from Imperial. It has elements of Hanabi in that communication is limited, and thinking about player intentions is critical. James and I have played through and beaten a number of the hard missions, though the 2P variant with Jarvis hasn’t actually been that difficult, I think – we both play quite logically. I think some of my experience with playing out a bridge hand (not so familiar with the bidding, more so with the play) is relevant.

Travel and Exploration

What is travel?

More seriously, there was one weekend trip to Switzerland this year and that was about it, though I did spend more time exploring my parts of my local area that I did not know as well in the past (such as St James’s Park and some walking routes in London). Eat Out to Help Out and the various Amex Shop Small promotions did also make me look around for new deals and offers.

I think if the situation abates in 2021 (like it did in the summer), even if in an inconclusive way, I will be travelling quite a lot (taking the relevant precautions, of course, and the vaccine as it becomes available). I can’t remember if I even travelled overseas at all in 2011, so this might strangely be more than that still.

Music

I started getting back into DDR late this year, though I’ve had to play at home for the most part because of the coronavirus. Some of the songs also make good background music when I’m working on something, especially tasks that are “just work” as opposed to requiring a lot of deep focus. Hopeful Frontier is probably a good example; the track runs at a crisp 200 BPM and has fast 16th and even 24th note streams. I can’t step that quickly in DDR terms (that’s 13.33 and 20 steps per second, respectively) – and in any case it’s not actually a DDR song, instead originating from jubeat, one of the other games in Konami’s rhythm game series. Paranoia Survivor is slower but has a bit more personal significance; it’s the first level 15 song I passed on DDR probably about 10 years ago. Coming back to DDR after not having played for so long, it’s hard but not ridiculous (unlike the level 17s which I don’t have the stamina or footspeed for now), and being able to almost automatically pivot my body to do the crossovers has been nice.

Some of this is probably coronavirus-influenced but this cover of I Will Remember You is probably the most-listened song outside of the aforementioned rhythm game music.

Financials

Distinct Positive Outlooks

2020 was a tough year for many developed and developing economies. It does feel kind of perverse that this year was financially successful for me, amid broad destruction both in terms of economies as well as many individuals’ finances. I’ve been fortunate to remain at Palantir, and I do produce good enough work so that the people there are willing to keep me around. Palantir had a direct public offering (DPO) at the end of September. The stock opened with a volume-weighted average price of $10.12 in the first trading session, and then rose further, eventually going above $30, which was well beyond what I expected. The tax rates on the earnings here are pretty high (having to pay the employer NI contributions puts the marginal tax at around 54%) but I don’t find them unreasonable given equity-based compensation is a privilege.

Budgetary Changes

This was the year where I spent more on groceries in April than I did for the whole of 2019. Obviously, working from home influenced expenditure patterns; there were large increases in Food, Coffee and Groceries. However, especially for groceries working from home alone does not explain the magnitude of the increase. Grocery expenditure in 2020 was 9.8 times that in 2019. Previously I would usually have 2 meals at home each week, while now it is probably more like 10. Thus, the “equivalent factor” should be no higher than 5, and actually given that the office was still open in January and February, 4.33 is probably the correct multiplier for the year. The implication then is that I am spending more per meal, let’s say p times. Then, we want to solve \frac{1}{6} + \frac{5}{6}(5p) = 9.8 \leadsto p \approx 2.31. That probably checks out; I have gone to M&S quite a bit more than I used to. I’ve also spent a fair bit more on fresh food and the occasional specialist Japanese groceries as a treat. This was accompanied by massive drops in transport and travel (as expected), and noticeable increases in Learning (paying for German lessons, buying more books).

Investments and Philosophy

COVID-19 has made me re-think my approach towards money. A more formal way of saying it would be that I’ve realised that having money is not a sufficient condition for being able to redeem it for something useful or enjoyable; a more causal way would be the “you only live once” (YOLO) phrase that Drake invoked. Having non-essential retail and almost all restaurants close during the first lockdown (even for take-away: while it was legal to remain open for take-away, they had logistical issues to sort out first) made the limitations of having money or some other store of value apparent. There was still online shopping for goods (and, as it turns out, services) that one could have done, but it was relatively constrained. There is a point where optimising for today becomes irresponsible, but having an excessively long-term mindset can also be damaging.

We’ve had many studies on the subject of delayed gratification and how the child that was able to wait for his marshmallows tends to perform better in life later on, but never eating the marshmallows doesn’t seem to be the solution. I’ve discussed this in a blogpost before, but if we consider the question of “would you take N dollars today or 2N dollars in a year’s time”, I’d used to always have opted for the future option, but nowadays depending on N I might opt to take it today (generally if N is very large). For some reason, I have a natural instinct to save aggressively. This period has taught me that there are limits to this, and perhaps along the lines of what the teacher says in Ecclesiastes, the fruits of one’s labour are to be enjoyed.

Interestingly, in 2019 I claimed to have lost some interest in my portfolio; that’s even more true in 2020. I’ve taken quite a bit less interest in my investments this year, perhaps because of this lesson. I continue to do the monthly motions, but otherwise haven’t looked much at my portfolio. My understanding is that performance for this year is broadly flat for a GBP-based broad-based global equity tracker; I do remember pushing a bit more money into the market in March when the market fell, and did the Bed and ISA, but otherwise don’t really remember much.

The Megalixir Problem

Image by tatu234 from Pixabay

In the Final Fantasy role playing game series, the Megalixir is usually one of the most powerful healing items in the game, typically restoring all characters’ health and magic points to maximum. The name stems from mega- (one million, but more contemporarily extreme or powerful) and elixir. Most of the time, Megalixirs are also special in that they are not easily obtainable; they are not directly purchaseable for the common in-game currency, and must either be found, obtained (rarely!) from enemy monsters or specifically traded for. When I played the games, these items would often end up sitting around in my inventory unused; I’d maybe use one or two when fighting the final boss or bonus boss, but there would still usually be many left over once the game was 100% completed. There’s always a fear that what’s to come might be even more difficult and necessitate the use of a Megalixir.

On the other hand, when I was in university I used to participate in mobile gaming offers on so-called “offer walls” as a side hustle. Game companies would advertise their mobile game and pay some amount of money to make some defined progress in their game (in exchange for generating usage statistics that would be useful e.g. in the App Store). These played out quite differently; many of these apps were free to play, but had a form of premium currency – players could accumulate some in the game, though they could obtain much more by making in-app purchases. Since the ending point was well known (e.g. complete level 20), I would aggressively burn the premium currency with the goal of reaching the required level with as little slack as possible; most likely if I was playing the game for the long haul I’d not be as relaxed there.

The Megalixir is of course a metaphor for a resource that is high-impact, somewhat scarce and difficult to replace. Whether it is a slug of equities or cash, some nice clothes, a premium bottle of wine or even a stash of airline miles, I find that my first instinct is usually to conserve rather than use them. So the equities are aggressively reinvested, the clothes stay in the cupboard until there’s a really special occasion, the wine remains undrunk and the flights untaken. However, I think a lesson I’ve learned this year especially through the COVID-19 restrictions was that I should be more generous with these resources (and this means being more willing to use them); retaining a Megalixir is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for using it in the future. Of course, one can attempt to make more sophisticated expected-value calculations: that’s the basis for safe withdrawal rates in retirement, for example. These calculations are fairly involve and incur some overhead, though, and thus while it makes sense to plan one’s retirement, it may not be productive agonising over smaller resources. I’m reminded of several instances over the years where I’ve spent hours researching and ruminating over a 10 pound decision. To take the metaphor further, the Megalixirs, while hard to come by, are generally not strictly limited.

The inspiration for this post came up from a video that found its way onto my YouTube playlist this week – that being one for Charlie Puth’s Dangerously. I remember first listening to this song in late 2016 when flying back to Singapore for a Palantir deployment, on Singapore Airlines, and neither having been back nor being able to reasonably return and work from there has been fairly draining. I normally go back every 4 months, while it’s been 11 since the last time I was there. Although I didn’t pay for the flight at the time, it did make me think about travelling, and how I’d be willing to pay up for premium economy (or possibly even business, if it’s cheap) when international travel restrictions loosen.

In general, there has been a shift in my finances and planning in this direction since March or so when COVID-19 began to impact my life in the UK. At least as far as personal finance is concerned, I have quite a strong inherent bias towards delayed gratification, so overcoming that feels strange. It still does feel awkward, unfortunately (and indeed frugality and being critical of one’s purchases is usually a strength).

Some of this is, to go with the Megalixir analogy, actually along the lines of supporting my physical and mental health in a more challenging environment, and I would say my work and personal environment has definitely become more challenging this year (though not purely due to COVID reasons). It’s worth noting here that challenging doesn’t mean bad; for example, I’d say my work environment is several times more challenging than it was in 2016 because the scope of my responsibilities has grown, though this expanded scope also has the potential to be considerably more rewarding. This manifests in terms of better quality food – premium apples and fresh fish, for example. I remember that as a first year in university I facetiously derided the “three for 10 quid” deals on meat and fish in Sainsbury’s, M&S or Waitrose – now I’m actually using these offers quite frequently. The mental aspect of this is probably more damaging to the bottom line, as I do indulge in a little retail therapy.

In spite of this, this year’s saving rate is quite high, because income has held steady while expenditure has not risen dramatically. I’m fortunate that my income flows haven’t really been affected yet, and because of the DPO actually grew. Although I intend to re-work my spending patterns, that’s not readily feasible yet. There’s no point in using a Megalixir when the monsters are very weak; if your HP is say 9900 out of 9999 and a regular potion heals 100 HP, you should just use the regular potion. Most of the stuff I find interesting or purchase as part of said retail therapy turns out to be quite inexpensive, and my tastes in food are simple so there’s really only a limited amount of bottom line damage that can happen here. Hopefully as holidays and international travel start to come back online next year, there’ll actually be opportunities to chase where one of these can be legitimately deployed.

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.

Work

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.

Travel

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.

Reading

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.

Music

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.

On Speaking English Poorly

I saw an interesting question in my Quora feed:

As a native English speaker, when you hear foreign people speak bad English do you hate it?

Generally speaking, my answer would be no; while I would probably notice it, hate is a strong word. I’d probably react to it more out of confusion or surprise than in an outright negative way; in this context even dislike is stronger than what I would intend. I think it’s implied by the question that the foreign person is from a country where English is not spoken as a first language, and thus their native language is not English.  Learning a second language is difficult. In addition to English, I am also able to speak some Chinese (~CEFR B1) and German (~A2). However, Chinese was generally my worst subject through middle and high school in Singapore and I wouldn’t be confident in delivering an impromptu speech or discussing philosophy in Chinese. So far I’ve found German easier, but speaking is still by far my weakest of the four main language skills there. I almost certainly can’t speak the person’s native language as well as they can. (The case where the person’s native language is English would be a little more frustrating, but even then, hate is a strong word!)

It’s probably more interesting to consider the cases where I would be annoyed and think this is justified. To analyse this, I’d first look at what impact speaking English poorly might have, and then consider the conditions under which these impacts would be unacceptable.

Spoken English is primarily used as a medium of communication, so to some extent I would evaluate the consequences of speaking English badly based on how much this impacts communication.  Firstly, even when communication is achieved without any further questions or disruption, I would find that conversations may still not flow as well as they would with a fluent interlocutor. This is because my brain may need to take extra effort to decode the meaning of what is being said. I do notice small errors such as “There are less apples in my bag” (fewer – apples are generally countable) or “Dancing makes fun” (dancing is fun – this is a word-for-word translation from German, Tanzen macht Spaß). If there is limited grammatical structure to the sentences, even more effort is needed. I can work out what is likely intended when one says “Epistemology means read knowing of part reasoning” (“Epistemology is the branch of philosophy dealing with knowledge”), but I would probably struggle to enjoy a philosophical discussion with such a speaker.

Secondly, even if successful communication is achieved, it may not be as nuanced as intended. If I was to describe a performance that I would rate a 5/10, I could say that. However, a 5/10 could be a 5/10 because it was undistinguished across the board, in which case I might use “unspectacular” or “banal”. On the other hand, a 5/10 with distinct strong and weak components might be described as “a very mixed bag”, or I might feel “ambivalent” about it. I can’t do this as neatly in Chinese (平庸 for 5/10 in general, but distinguishing the types is hard without circumlocution) or German (“nicht so gut”, but I’m not sure how to go about the rest – “nicht so gut überall” vs. “teilweise sehr gut, teilweise furchtbar”?), to the point where I’d not bother communicating these thoughts as precisely, unless how the 5/10 score came about was important to the conversation.

Finally, of course communication breakdowns and errors can happen. These can arise from plain errors in vocabulary (thinking “tomorrow” means “yesterday”, or “sanguine” means “pessimistic”), expressions that are inadvertently inconsistent (“I will eat the fish and drank the white wine with it” – is this meal in the future or past?) or unintended connotations (not realising “imbecile” or “wanker” are general insults and don’t just mean “of low intelligence” and “person who masturbates” respectively).

In general, I think as long as a person is making a genuine good-faith effort and is not in a position where I’d expect them to have fluent English, I would certainly not hate, or for that matter, dislike the situation. It may affect the extent to which I’m able to communicate with them for pleasure, but it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be pleased to make their acquaintance. It would probably mean I would avoid choosing discussion topics and activities that would require extremely precise, clear communication, but that’s fine – that covers only a minority of my interests. Furthermore, if they’re learning English I would be interested in helping them – maybe they could teach me a bit of their native language too.

I’d see a person as not making a genuine effort at communication if I think they are trying to obstruct it. This is difficult to assess; it’s not clear how to distinguish a lack of ability and a lack of will here. I think this mainly covers deliberate errors when I’m confident the person would know better – this introduces unnecessary overheads or even barriers in communication.

The good-faith part of this would be broken by a breach of trust. For example, the person gets angry or accuses me of speaking English poorly or deliberately obstructing communication. Alternatively, the person blames me for a miscommunication that arises because something was clearly said to mean something following standard English (even if that’s not how the person interpreted it).  Thankfully, I haven’t had many experiences in this vein.

Finally, there are circumstances where I’d expect people to be able to speak English fluently. Typically, this happens as part of a transactional relationship where some communication is required, and English is chosen as the medium of communication (which would be by default in the UK). The level of fluency required here is of course variable, depending on said relationship’s nature. In literary performances I’d expect halting and/or “bad” English to be intentional for some dramatic effect; using English poorly inadvertently here would be highly questionable. Similarly, I’d want my fellow software engineers, lawyers and tax advisors to be fluent because the issues I’d be discussing with them are likely to require this. Statements like “I received a billion US dollars in my account based in Luxembourg in July, converted it to pounds sterling in August and remitted it to the UK two months after that” need to be understood exactly, and any error in the timeline (like thinking a billion is 1012 instead of 109 which is standard in English, the remittance happened in September instead of October, confusing US dollars with Australian or Singaporean dollars, or pounds sterling with Egyptian or Syrian pounds) could have serious consequences. I’d expect some (but less) fluency from say service staff in the UK – enough to understand and complete my requests accurately would suffice. I might be a little annoyed if someone advertises a buy-one-get-one-free offer as an unconditional 50% discount (they’re only equivalent for an even number of items!) or repeatedly brings a fork when I’ve asked for a spoon (once is fine).

On Eating Out to Help Out

The UK Government ran an interesting promotion called “Eat Out to Help Out” for the month of August. Meals eaten in a restaurant, pub or cafe (including soft drinks, but only soft drinks) were eligible for a 50% discount up to a maximum of £10 per person; the customer would pay 50% and the restaurant could claim the remaining 50% of the price back from the Government. The restaurant doesn’t pay anything (apart from the administrative cost of giving the discount and claiming it – there were multiple occasions where I’ve heard staff explain to a diner why the calculation wasn’t as they expected – and possibly some cash-flow/time-value-of-money concerns).

My initial reaction to this was that it was a nice bonus, along the line of “every little helps”. The phrase “bread and circuses” did come to mind, though for me at least this doesn’t really move the needle of my political opinions much. I could see how it could stimulate the economy at least in the short term (granted, with a risk of making the COVID-19 situation worse: the Soho area was extremely packed on the evenings I went there). That said, I also noted that it was a little bit limited in that the rebates are proportional to one’s existing expenditures on food, which may be a (faulty) proxy for existing standard of living. A person who can’t afford to eat out at all can’t benefit, and my individual meals usually cost more like £10 and so I might benefit less than someone whose meals do regularly hit that threshold.

Furthermore, there was no restriction on the number of times the promotion could be used, meaning that one could have an appetiser in one bill, a main course in a second, a dessert in a third and all the soft drinks in a fourth, potentially getting a £40 per head discount (and this could be extended even further if one goes for a tapas-style meal, for instance)! There were also some further loopholes, such as taking away leftovers, and the timing of Sunday dinner (if the bill is issued after midnight, it is Monday and so the discount applies).

Nonetheless, given the scheme was in place it is something I can appreciate, and I figured I might as well enjoy its benefits (while taking appropriate precautions to mitigate risks of actually catching COVID i.e. social distancing, masks, sanitiser, avoiding excessively busy places). I pay a fair chunk of Income Tax plus the odd bit on dividends and capital gains, so in a sense this is reclaiming some of that, especially since I’d expect taxes to rise soon in the light of needing to pay for stimulating policies, this one included. I ate out considerably more than I would have normally – this meant going out for some lunches on days without a lot of meetings, and some dinners at 7.30 or 8 pm after work (instead of eating at 6 pm and then having a short evening session). I figured that the government subsidised my meals to the tune of about £200 over the 13 days of the promotion. However, one could potentially squeeze in 10 restaurant visits per week for the 4 full weeks, and 4 visits on the final Monday, for a total of 44 visits – £440 if one spends £10 at each place, and possibly more because of the aforementioned exploits.

Of course, a consequence of this is that my August food budget went through the roof. My meals at home in terms of raw ingredients probably rarely cost in excess of £3. Although it’s not exactly logical, I often found myself ordering embellishments or more premium options to get the bill close to either side of £20; that is still a cost of £10 to me. My average expenditure on eating out was £190 in the three months to August but £325 in August; on the other hand, for groceries it was £300 in the three months to August and £230 in August. I mitigated some of the costs here by stacking offers – most notably, American Express had a Shop Small promotion that offers £5 off a £10 expense at selected retailers, so £20 becomes £10 from Eat Out to Help Out, and then £5.

In terms of the food itself, it wasn’t as much of an adventure as I originally thought it might be, perhaps because I was tired out from work and was also alone for most of the promotion; I met Tom on the last day for pizza but I think that was it. I didn’t actually end up trying any new places as part of this – it looks to be a string of familiar and comfortable establishments. I ate a lot of Japanese food. I had ramen at three different places (Kanada-Ya, Tonkotsu and the Japan Centre), sushi on a number of occasions (Sagamiya, Sushimania, Dozo and even Wasabi), and other cooked dishes (Eat Tokyo for grilled meats and fish, Coco Ichibanya for Japanese curry, Zen Cafe for melon pans). Four Seasons roast duck and 97 Old Town salted fish and chicken fried rice made the cut too. I also visited pubs a bunch of times (for food; alcoholic drinks weren’t included as part of the promotion). I think my preferences when eating out tend to result in this because a lot of these dishes are difficult for me to make (or make well) at home.

The promotion in terms of the Government subsidising diners has ended, though a number of restaurants and cafes are still continuing with this policy into September, some in a reduced form (e.g. 20 or 25% off instead of 50%, or only including a subset of the days or mealtimes). I haven’t sought out any of these yet, though, and have eaten at home a fair bit more this month – I do like my cooking enough that I would miss it if I don’t get to eat it for some time.

In This Economy? (Q2 2020 Review)

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.

COVID-19

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.

Finance

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.

Other Pursuits

Deutsch

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).

Reading

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.
  • German
    • 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.
  • Discipline-Specific
    • 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.

Travel

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.

Music

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 CellsDicey 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).

Deficits and Surpluses (UK Sudoku Championship, 2020)

Last weekend I participated in the UK Sudoku Championship 2020. Participants had two hours to score points, by solving as many of 16 puzzles as they could – the top contestant finished everything correctly in 56 minutes 34 seconds, and sixteen people cleared everything within the time limit. It’s pretty impressive how long the tail of the distribution is. I finished thirteen out of sixteen puzzles, scoring 621 of 720 points (puzzles are worth different numbers of points depending on difficulty, and the ones I left behind were generally on the lower-valued side of things), and would probably have taken another 15 minutes to finish out the last three puzzles.

Nonetheless, 621 points was enough to log a 28th place finish. I finished on rank 42 two years ago, and although I missed last year’s I did it offline and ranked somewhere in the 40s as well, so this looks like an improvement. Of course, it could also be the case that the field got weaker.

Most of the puzzles in this contest were fairly common sudoku variants – while I normally scan through the instruction booklet before starting the contest I don’t usually prep explicitly, and here it’s not really needed. The UK championship seems to have had three standard 9×9 Sudokus, a Killer (extra regions are added with target sums; numbers in a region can’t repeat, and must add up to the target), a Diagonal (numbers along the two major diagonals must be unique) and a Thermo (thermometers are added, which introduce inequality constraints: along these numbers must increase). I’d usually go through all of these – based on past data I’m usually reasonably fast at these.

There are also a couple of more peculiar puzzles. There’s “OEBS” (Odd-Even-Big-Small), where a couple of kanji characters (in this case they’re the same as the Chinese words) are placed next to the grid, introducing constraints on the first two numbers seen in that direction. This is usually an 8×8 grid, and is a type I like; it often admits logic around pairs and sets. Then there’s a Surplus and Deficit Sudoku. These puzzles tend to make my head spin a lot, and so I didn’t plan on going for them at all.

  • Surplus Sudoku: Place 1-N in each row and column once each. Some M-cell (M > N) regions are marked – these regions must contain each number at least once. In the contest, N = 7 and M = 8.
  • Deficit Sudoku: Place 1-N in each row and column once each. Some M-cell (M < N) regions are marked – these regions must not contain any duplicates. In the contest, N = 7 and M = 6.

I already find the geometry of an Irregular Sudoku (which has the standard rules, except the 9-cell boxes are weirdly shaped) tough – spatial reasoning is not one of my strong suits. Working with these is even harder, especially because some rudimentary Sudoku techniques become invalid in the regions (but are still valid, and often needed, in the rows and columns!):

  • Naked Single: If all possibilities other than X are present in the same row, column or region as this cell, then X must be the value of this cell. This doesn’t work in Surplus Sudoku regions, because X could be a duplicated digit.
  • Hidden Single: If X can only be placed in one location in this row, column or region, then X must go there. This doesn’t work in Deficit Sudoku regions, because X might simply not appear in the region.

Applying these two techniques is pretty much automatic for me, and these deductions remain valid in almost all Sudoku variants, but are no longer always applicable in these puzzles. The additional checking and context switching slows things down by a lot.

It’s probably a much more involved technical discussion, but to me at least Surplus Sudoku feels like a pretty weird sudoku variant (probably because of having repeated numbers in a region). I don’t find it symmetric: Deficit feels less strange, maybe because “numbers cannot repeat in a specifically marked region” is not too far off from many of the other constraints in common variants (e.g. a Killer with size eight cages – though you’re told which number is missing, or a Thermo with thermometers of length seven or eight – strictly increasing means numbers can’t repeat). I probably don’t have that much experience puzzle-solving, but I can only think of one variant which ends up forcing a lot of equality in sub-regions of the grid: Anti-Diagonal Sudoku (each of the major diagonals has only three distinct digits), though that’s not a super common variant and I find they solve kind of weirdly as well.

Writing those two puzzles off probably turned out to be a mistake, as I had about four minutes at the end with the Surplus, Deficit and Irregular left. I don’t think this was intentional, but the spatial theme here is kind of amusing. I opted to try the 20-point Deficit Sudoku instead of the 30-point Irregular which was unlikely to have been solvable that quickly, but barely got anywhere. Given how close I was to otherwise finishing the set, I might need to be careful about writing off more than one puzzle (and at some point, even about writing off one puzzle).

Nonetheless, I think I performed well, and enjoyed the contest – maybe next time around I’ll actually give these puzzles a shot! (Though probably at the end.)

Learning German 8: Ein Jahrestag (An Anniversary)

Ich lerne jetzt seit einem ganzen Jahr Deutsch. Ich erinnere mich, dass ich mit Duolingo und Linguee fing an. Zuerst lernte ich ein paar Wörter mit diesen Apps (obwohl es ist nicht so, dass ich von Null fing an. Früher hatte ich drei Monaten in Zürich gewohnt, und obwohl ich dann kein Deutsch gelernt hatte, erinnere ich mich natürlich ein bisschen Sachen.)

Als ich die Unterrichten bei Palantir begann, kannte ich ungefähr zwischen 600 und 1000 Wörter. Aber ich wusste kein Grammatik, und hatte nie auf Deutsch gesprochen. Wir hatten ein paar Deutschstunden, und dann unsere Lehrerin machte ihren jährlichen Urlaub. Ich hatte eine Fünf-Wochen-Pause, aber ich lernte weiter. Sie empfahl mir eine Serie von Büchern, die heißt “Dino lernt Deutsch”. Ich las diese Büchern gern, weil ich die Charaktere lustig und (wichtiger) die Sprache verständlich fand. Ich mochte auch die Fragen nach jedem Kapitel, weil ich mein Verständnis des Textes überprüfen konnte.

Ich glaube, dass ich vielleicht im September oder Oktober das A1-Niveau erreichte. Aber wegen meines Arbeits und meiner Faulheit machte ich die Prüfung im Januar. Damals war meine deutsche Sprachkentnisse sicherlich über A1; deshalb mochte ich “sehr gut” (mehr als 90 Prozent) Note. Ich übte andere Prüfungen, z. B. die englische GCSE (zu dieser Zeit bekam ich Siebener, die vielleicht Niveau A2 sind), und die telc A2 Deutschprüfungen. Endlich bekam ich 100 Prozent – das war noch ein bisschen überraschend. Ich vermute, dass sogar ins Sprechen und Schreiben man alle Punkte bekommen kann, wenn man die Aufgabe komplett erfüllt.

Wegen des Coronavirus muss ich die Unterrichten selbst bezahlen. Natürlich bevorzuge ich, wenn die Firma bezahlen, aber das ist für mich kein Problem. Ich finde die Deutschstunden effektiv und interessant. Am wichtigsten ist, dass ich mich durch diese Unterrichten mein Sprechen und Schreiben verbessern können. Eine Person, die meine Arbeit präzise korrigieren kann, ist sehr wertvoll.

Und dies ist mein erster Artikel, den ich komplett auf Deutsch geschrieben habe (am meistens…). Es ist klar, dass dies immer noch sehr schwierig ist. Aber es ist gut zu sehen, dass ich jetzt über komplizierter Ideen und Sachen schreiben kann. Ich will, und werde, weiter lernen.

I’ve been learning German for a full year now. I remember that I began with Duolingo and Linguee. I first learned a few words with these apps, though it isn’t the case that I started from zero. I had previously lived for three months in Zurich, and although I didn’t learn German at the time, I naturally remember some of it, by absorption.

When the lessons at Palantir started, I knew somewhere between 600 and 1000 words or so, although I knew zero grammar, and had never spoken a word of German. We had a few lessons, and then our teacher went on her annual holiday. I had a five week break, but I continued to learn. My teacher recommended a series of books called “Dino learns German”. I enjoyed reading these books, because the characters were funny, and more importantly the language was understandable. I also liked that there were questions after each chapter, as they allowed me to validate my comprehension of the text.

I believe I probably reached an A1 level in September or October, but because of my work and laziness I only did the exam in January. At that time, my German skills were surely above A1, therefore I wanted to get a “very good” (90% or higher) grade. I practiced other exams, for example the English GCSE (at that time I was scoring around grade 7s overall, which are about A2 level) and the A2 telc exams. In the end I scored 100%, which was still surprising. I guess that even in speaking and writing, one can get full marks if one fulfills the task completely.

Because of the coronavirus, I now have to pay for lessons myself – of course I prefer if the company pays, but that is not a problem. I find the lessons effective and interesting. Most importantly, I can improve my speaking and writing through these lessons – having a trusted person who can precisely correct my work is very valuable.

And this is also my first blogpost that I’ve written completely in German (well, kind of). It’s clear that this is still really difficult, but it’s good to see that I can now write about more complex ideas and things. I do want to, and will, continue to learn.