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.

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.


This is of course central to Q2; although working from home began in early March (the company made a prescient decision!), the UK-wide lockdown only fully landed on the 24th, and is still slowly being eased. During March I travelled to Zurich, still visited the office sometimes and went out (including dining in in restaurants) freely.

Essentials and Non-Essentials

When the lockdown was first instituted, I imagined it would be psychologically very stressful. I would not call myself a libertarian, though my opinions to some extent trend in that direction. I think having a lockdown was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, as painful as curtailing one’s freedom of movement and civil liberties is. I’d be uneasy with saying people should have full freedom to decide how much coronavirus risk they should accept (and thus not have a lockdown at all, as was done in Sweden).

There has clearly been an impact on my activities, even putting aside working from home. I used to semi-regularly physically meet up with some old friends from Imperial, and also go for drinks with some colleagues at Palantir. These have been paused, and I’m not sure they will resume immediately from July 4. I’ve also had two planned summer holidays cancelled because of COVID-19 related issues (one to Singapore, and one to Austria and Hungary).

That said, the experience I’ve had with some more local activities has improved. Going out has been quite comfortable: the air is cleaner, there are fewer people and it is quieter. I’m reminded of my time in Zurich, actually. (There are other factors that would make me prefer to stay in London, though, at least for now.) I’ve also realised that physical non-essential retail and even dining in aren’t things I actually use that often. There is an exception of bookshops, though, because I still find the browsing and discovery experience far superior. I suspect I will miss some of this relative peace and quiet (as much as I realise that it’s unsustainable and bad for the economy).

It’s also worth noting how geographically distributed the friends I keep in touch with are. Of course, there was always a group based in Singapore – but for the Imperial group, by now more than half of them aren’t based in London. Thus, there was no real change in how we communicated, for the most part.

Working from Home

This is hardly news, but I’m still on AtlasDB. I’ve written about this before, but I do miss working in a physical office: pairing and iterating closely on features is a lot easier in person. The office also serves as a great forcing function to get me to leave at the end of the day, as its emptiness does make me ask myself if I should still be around. It is also a useful crutch in encouraging separation between work and non-work.

There were a couple of changes here, as adapting to a work-from-home environment focused my time more. Paring down the number of things I’m juggling has helped significantly (there are still quite a few, but I don’t mind it that way). Previously I had a large number of tasks that I could barely keep tabs on, let alone contribute actively to. I think I’ve been holding things down reasonably well.

I did push myself a bunch of times in ways which I knew to be unsustainable. I would still maintain that some of these heroics were justified, though I need to be better at easing off after such “surges”. I think my working hours can easily hit 70+ during a surge, with the intention of having a 40-hour week after that…. that ends up turning out around 55 or 60 still.

I had had my concerns about job stability as well. I’m fortunate that my position is reasonably secure, and there are backup mechanisms in that I would be able to survive getting furloughed (of course that would be pretty unpleasant). The high, if admittedly not quite FIRE-style savings rates I’d been maintaining should help.


Stocks have been volatile, and so has the pound (it now seems to be a ‘risk-on’ currency, which makes sense given Brexit uncertainty – even though it’s undervalued in PPP terms). I haven’t looked at my portfolio closely, and have continued with the standard mechanical monthly contributions and occasional rebalancing. Similarly, things like salary sacrifice have been chugging on as normal.

The expenses side of the balance sheet is much more interesting, if unsurprising. I’ve adhered closely to the lockdown rules, so the transport category (which normally covers tube and bus usage) has crashed to 0.00 for this quarter. My last Tube journey was from Heathrow Airport at the beginning of March. Similarly, the travel category is at 0.00. On the other hand, expenditure on entertainment (computer games, primarily) has doubled, and that on books has tripled from normal levels.

The main increase, however, is in groceries; I spent more on groceries in April 2020 alone than I did for the entire year of 2019. This was a short-term increase because of some stockpiling, and the grocery bill for May and June is much lower. I’m aware that I used to have lunches and dinners provided in Palantir and usually cooked two meals a week, but the increase has still been by more than a factor of seven.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report on a Minimum Income Standard in the UK for 2019 suggests that a single person’s weekly budget for food and non-alcoholic drinks would come in at around £49.64. I was spending about £7 per week in 2019 – multiplying by seven to account for the increased number of meals that clocks in at just about the standard.

I’ve now been spending more than that (I’d say a stable level for me is probably about £60-65 per week now). Some of the items involved are definitely treats, like black cod with miso from the Japan Centre, or fancy Korean ramyeons from Oseyo. It’s certainly quite a change from first year at Imperial though, where I made things work on £7 a week (for all meals!) for a full term. It’s almost a 10x increase.

Other Pursuits


I continued my lessons with Palantir until the end of May. I then decided to continue taking lessons with Katja. I’ve found her to be a great teacher because she has been able to adapt to my iteration speed (which is generally quite high and involving nontrivial amounts of homework). We’re most of the way through the A2 course book, though I like to think my reading at least is probably at B1. I even tried to do the Goethe-Institut B2 practice test for reading and got 23 of 30 (an okay pass)! Unfortunately my productive skills (speaking and writing) definitely aren’t there yet. We now have a summer break. I have to prepare a presentation and a book report! I’m hoping to reach B2 by end of next year.

Ich fortsetzte meinen Unterricht bei Palantir bis Ende Mai. Dann entschied ich mich, die Deutschstunden mit Katja weitermachen. Ich fand, dass sie eine gute Deutschlehrerin ist, weil sie meine Schnelligkeit, die ziemlich hoch ist und mit viel Hausaufgaben zu tun, benutzen konnte. Ich habe den großen Teil des A2-Kurzbuchs gelernt. Obwohl ich gerne denke, dass meine Lesekenntnisse zumindest wahrscheinlich auf B1 liegen. Ich sogar probierte die Goethe-Institut B2 Modellprüfung für das Lesen. Ich erreichte 23 von 30 Punkte – das ist genug, wenn man bestanden möchte. Meine produktive Sprachkenntnisse (Sprachend und Schreiben) unbedingt sind nicht auf B1. Wir machen jetzt eine Sommer-Pause. Ich muss eine Präsentation und einen Buchbericht vorbereiten! Ich hoffe, dass ich bis Ende nächsten Jahres B2 erreichen werde.

Sudoku and Logic Puzzles

I haven’t been doing these much outside of the various contests. I’m still on rank 49 in the Sudoku GP after seven rounds, though I don’t think I’ll be able to have a top 50 finish (as the aggregate score is derived from one’s best six rounds, and there are a couple of people slightly behind on the leaderboard whose score was derived from five rounds). I think my performances in these were generally solid, if nothing exceptional (rank 47 in round 5, 39 in round 6, 40 in round 7). Still, it looks like there’ll hopefully be a big improvement over last year’s rank 66.

There was a technical issue (I think?) on the general Puzzles side so only five rounds have taken place. I’m at rank 102 which is worse than last year. I’ve been pretty inconsistent (rank 137, 156, 71, 141, 124 for the five rounds); not sure why.

The UK Sudoku (where I finished with rank 28) and Puzzle (rank 39) Contests 2020 also took place. Both went quite smoothly for me, Sudoku slightly more so. I also had some experience with designing logic puzzles (I’ve written for the Palantir puzzlehunt before, but the previous ones I wrote were largely steganography-based). I have read parts of Selinker and Snyder’s Puzzlecraft, and it felt gratifying to see test-solvers reason through exactly the same path of logic I intended (though the puzzle had to be changed a bunch of times because the intended solution path, although entirely deducible one step at a time, was quite narrow).


Here’s a list of some of the books I’ve been reading in Q2, and attempted short summaries:

  • General Reading
    • Stuffocation: Living More with Less (James Wallman): Spending on experiences like tourism and travel with friends is generally more worthwhile than spending on things. This is claimed to be something that people are trending towards.
    • Start Now, Get Perfect Later (Rob Moore): Indecision and the fear of failure can often be obstacles to starting doing things at all, even though that is often the best way to build a good solution in the end. Thus, as the book’s title says, start now, and get perfect later.
    • Science the Shit Out of Life (Colin Stuart, Mun Keat Looi): Algorithms are fun and can be deployed for profit. Sometimes it’s unclear what to do beyond running experiments – in that case it can be interesting to run experiments.
  • 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.


Well. This was expectedly non-existent in Q2. Let’s see what happens in Q3: from the 10th of July travel to a number of countries on the government’s travel corridor list is permitted without the need for quarantine. However, the country on the other end also needs to allow me in, and my combination of being a Singapore national but a UK resident means that I have to be very careful when reading the rules. For example, the German Auswärtiges Amt (foreign office) notes explicitly that “The question of whether travel to Germany is permitted depends on where the person travelling has previously been staying, not on their nationality”, so I’m good there (and the general EU guidance is also as such). Switzerland, on the other hand, would not allow me in: to quote the UK Foreign Office guidance, “Travellers from the UK who do not have UK/EU/EFTA nationality will not be permitted to enter Switzerland, however there are some exceptions”. There are some even more nuanced rules – in Denmark, for instance, “if you enter as a tourist, you need to document a holiday stay for at least six nights”.

Tourism in the UK is also a very valid option, and one that I haven’t really explored much beyond the odd day trip when my parents were around, or as part of events at work; this would likely be easier, and would be good for the local economy as well.


Not much here. There’s an acoustic cover of Through the Fire and Flames that I’ve liked – I’m not always feeling up to listening to the full DragonForce track, but there’s a nice melody there, and I find the execution here mostly clean and very listenable. I hadn’t found a more relaxed version of Fury of the Storm, which I prefer.

Board and Computer Games

I played quite a bit more of these because of the lockdown. There’s a trend in challenging (ish) roguelikes – Dead 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.

Beyond the Storm

Image by Dieter_G from Pixabay

The 5th of June 2020 bore similarities, for me, to the 29th of June 2016, the 6th of October 2015 and the 4th of January 2012. What is common between these dates is that they are the days just after a large – or as is the case with the most recent instance – intense project or series of projects were completed (the first and third were work related; the second was MCMAS-Dynamic, and the fourth was my full-time national service in Singapore). The final stages of these projects usually involve blatantly unsustainable working practices in the pursuit of excellence, quality, and/or tying up all loose ends. Interestingly, all but the most recent instance were tied to hard timelines of some kind.

It might seem like finishing a large or intense project would be a cause for celebration. That’s certainly true, both because of the extrinsic value of a project (performance improvements, new features, research contributions, or even some peace of mind) as well as the intrinsic sense of accomplishment from having completed (or at least survived) it. However, I find that there’s also a degree of emptiness that tends to grow in the few days after. The projects were inherently challenging and would have taken a large amount of my time, especially when considered in terms of the fraction of my hours they’d take up in their final weeks. There is also often a more significant amount of mental bandwidth and fortitude required for these projects to be successfully completed. Thus, when they’re finished, there’s going to invariably be a large disruption to the routine I’d have had in the days leading up to completion. While my attitude towards downtime and rest periods has grown into a more defensive and I think healthier position over time (so that I’m not immediately thinking “what’s the next productive thing to focus on?”), they can still only last for so long before a fear of laziness and indolence creeps back in, and I need to determine what I should look at next.

This would lead us to one possible strategy for dealing with these down periods: always having something lined up. This was serendipitously true in the 2015 instance; that day, a Friday, was my final day as a Palantir intern, and I began my final year of university on the Monday, with a fresh set of difficult modules and the beginning of MCMAS-Dynamic. We were required to take seven modules across the two terms, and I decided to front-load my modules. There was definitely a drop in intensity from the first week of October to the second, but it was relatively small. I’d say of the four instances here, this was the one that affected me the least. This is on a much smaller scale, but I didn’t feel any downtime after taking or passing the A1 Goethe-Institut exam because I knew I wanted to learn German to at least a B2 standard. I can often get overly focused on the task at hand to the exclusion of this. Pre-planning may not always be possible or optimal, as well: especially at work project selection is more often driven by business requirements and telemetry with a dose of intuition, which can change rapidly. Nonetheless, I think this is a good strategy especially for personal projects.

There is a natural extension of the above: if one maintains a portfolio of parallel projects, then finishing a large project would have less of an impact. This sounds good in theory, but I am slightly skeptical, mainly because in my experience these projects demand so much attention and time especially in their tail that there is often little productive capacity left to look at others. Furthermore, these “surges” in demand at the end often result in an elevated level of work that needs to be paused to maintain one’s sanity. In a sense, although I don’t particularly like the down periods, they are important and necessary (incidentally I’m strongly reminded of a phrase I’ve learnt in German class: wichtig und notwendig). Also, if one prioritises some (possibly one) of these projects substantially more highly than the others, it can be difficult to find the motivation to work on the lower-priority projects while there is still productive work that can be done on the important ones. I do do this for personal projects (maintaining friendships, learning German, competitive puzzles, writing and personal finance all run in parallel), but these are rarely the ones which call for massive, aggressive surges. (I won’t say that there weren’t any, though: the end of uni was where I focused on the first, and around the change of the tax year I do sometimes need to look at the fifth.)

An alternative approach is to avoid these last-minute pushes to reduce the delta between an intense final surge and not having the project at all. This is plausible, though I’m not certain the last-minute pushes are always avoidable, or for that matter a bad thing. A large amount of the stress in the 2016 instance was because with two weeks left, my supervisor Prof. Alessio Lomuscio and I decided to begin formally attacking LDLK on finite traces; the end would have been fairly relaxed if we didn’t do that, I’m happy I did it, though: this was an interesting (and publishable!) part of the investigation. In the 2020 instance, the deadlines were synthetic but getting those projects done quickly was important to reduce the amount of concurrent context I needed to track.

In summary, I’ve become more used to down periods after intense stretches of work and/or large projects are delivered; I think these are to some extent necessary even though I don’t find them particularly enjoyable. Making an effort to have something else planned, and/or working on multiple projects in parallel, where possible is usually helpful. Though these aren’t always possible, and in some cases if rigidly adhered to might limit the complexity of projects that one can successfully undertake. These down periods can be unpleasant, but I don’t think changing one’s projects is necessarily worth that tradeoff.

Remote Routines

It’s been about two and a half months since I started working from home, and I think I’d describe it as better than I expected, but still less than ideal. A tip I’ve suggested to my teammates to help maintain productivity while working from home is to establish a daily routine.

I’m aware of this in theory, but haven’t been as good at adhering to this in practice. The availability of meals in the office resulted in a natural routine: I would eat breakfast in the office before the workday started, and would normally finish most development work before dinner. I’d sometimes write documentation or polish up a test after dinner, but usually the post-dinner work would be less intense. This wasn’t true for everyone, of course (one could elect to skip breakfast and/or have dinner at home), but it was for me. I also set up my laptop to remind me at 8 pm to ask myself if I should stop for the day, and in any case an empty office was useful as a reminder that it was late, and that I perhaps should no longer be around.

Initially, I did follow this: I marked the start of the day with a short walk to the local M&S before breakfast. However, things started degrading over time. I think much of this was in relation to wanting to get as much sleep as possible before meetings or work started. I’m not sure what precipitated that; I imagine that would probably be a late night, perhaps caused by some combination of working late and getting distracted with reading, computer games or something else. I’ve been reading Puzzlecraft: How to Make Every Kind of Puzzle, and I do remember a recent evening where I started trying to craft a triple of linked Sudoku variants that weren’t independently solvable, but had a unique solution taken together at 9.30 pm or so, and finished at 1.30 am.

It’s probably related, but I noticed that I’ve recently been working longer hours – with reduced time outside of work it’s invariably tempting to push one’s sleep backwards, even if doing so may have undesirable consequences. I normally have a 2.5-3 km walking commute to the office (and interestingly this is what is currently recommended by the government), which takes me about 30 minutes at a reasonably quick pace. This is between 45 minutes and 1 hour each day (I almost always walk in the morning, but sometimes take the Tube in the evening) of time that seems to be mostly converted into development time. I guess this is a benefit of working from home if one holds one’s hours constant (that said, my commute also has exercise benefits for me).

Some of this might also be because I’ve started doing more independent development work again (there was a time where I spent <20% time on this, while it’s probably between 30 and 40 percent now). It’s now actually possible and directly relevant to my goals to make larger independent pushes. This is intellectually welcome though I do need to be careful about how far I take this.

I’ve also been getting more sleep for some reason. This may be a product of increased mental fatigue. In addition to development work, the hobbies I’ve been spending time on recently – reading, logic puzzles, learning German and some computer games – are generally quite taxing.

I normally get about 7.5 hours of sleep during the week, and maybe 8.5-9 or so on weekends. I think the amount of sleep I’ve been getting from Sunday to Thursday hasn’t really changed, but I don’t seem to feel as well-rested as normal. In terms of weekend schedules, I do remember an abnormally high frequency of 10- or 11-hour sleeps as of late.

There are definitely advantages to working from home – it can be better for focusing on specific difficult problems, and not having to do a 30 minute commute is a big win (and is possibly a bigger win for others). I’m not sure I would want to, though, given the choice, perhaps not for fault of the concept in general, but instead because I haven’t had the willpower, knowledge, or some other factor needed to thrive on it. There are also other frustrations: video-conferencing while passable still seems frictionful, and while I’m an introvert even I find the lack of human contact unsustainable.

Learning German 7: Fremdsprachen und Computer (Foreign Languages and Computers)

In der A1 “Start Deutsch 1” Prüfung muss man in das Schreiben-Teil ein Formular ausfüllen, z. B. ein Anmeldeformular für eine Sprachschule, oder eine Reisebuchungformular. Obwohl ich darin eine sehr gute Note bekam, bin ich noch nicht sicher, Formulare auf Deutsch auszufüllen. Ich würde immer noch Englisch benutzen, weil ich Missverständnisse vermeiden möchten. Auf der anderen Seite, das Spielen von Computerspielen hat am meistens weniger Konsequenzen, wenn man Fehler machen. Ich spielte ein paar Spiele auf Deutsch mit meinen Freunde, darunter “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes” und “Tick Tock: A Tale for Two”. In diesen Spiele ist gute und klare Kommunikation sehr wichtig. Wir machte viel Spaß, obwohl wir waren viel langsamer als wenn wir Englisch benutzte.

One has to fill in a form in the writing part of the German A1 (“Start Deutsch 1”) exam, for example a registration form for a language school or a travel booking form. Although I got a very good mark there, I’m still not confident filling in forms in German. I would still prefer to use English, because I would want to avoid any misunderstandings. On the other hand, playing computer games mostly has fewer consequences when one makes mistakes. I played a few games with my friends in German, including “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes” and “Tick Tock: A Tale for Two”. Good and clear communication is very important in these games. We had a lot of fun, even though we were much slower than if we used English.

A suggestion I’ve come across fairly often as part of language learning is to set one’s computer’s language to the target language. The aim here is likely to achieve immersion: one will see the language as part of one’s daily activities. Admittedly, the vocabulary one comes across is likely to be fairly domain specific (one will probably very quickly learn what the word for close or delete are – in German schließen and löschen respectively), but it does still likely cover a fair few common phrases and expressions that might be useful. For example, I have to think a bit to translate how to play (Spielanleitung or Wie man spielt, probably not the direct Wie zu spielen), while that would probably come very quickly to someone who did this.

As the previous sentence implied, I did not do this. I did try it briefly, but ran into enough frustrating issues that I switched my laptop back to English. I think the main issue wasn’t that I found the system unusable, but it did considerably slow things down. Many websites presented content, forms and questions to me in German (it’s possible this is my failure and/or I went for even more immersion when I changed the language settings), and I needed to read them really closely to be sure of precisely what I was doing. For example, I remember being asked, when booking a flight to Switzerland, Brauchen Sie aufgegebenes Gepäck? (Do you need checked baggage?) I knew Gepäck meant baggage – the problem was that I wanted hand (but not checked) baggage, and while I knew that hand luggage is normally written Handgepäck I didn’t know if aufgegebenes was another word for hand baggage or if it referred to checked baggage. While these kinds of disruptions could certainly be viewed as learning opportunities (and that is how I learned those words), they happened at a higher frequency than I would like, and were often disruptive.

There were also more technical issues relating to internationalisation (or “i18n” as is frequently written in tech). For example, my copy of The Sims 4 couldn’t find its old data directories because it decided to search in Die Sims 4. Most of my documents are still written in English, and Office also seemed to think that it should follow the default language for spell-checking (a reasonable assumption, and it’s probably too much to ask to have it infer the input language and then run spell check based on that, but frustrating for me).

On the other hand, I find computer games, especially ones that are relatively simpler, suitable for playing in a target foreign language because, as discussed above, there are generally fewer consequences for mistakes. If one is playing competitively, of course, then this would be an unnecessary handicap. The Sims series would probably be very good games for playing in German (or when learning a foreign language) because many of the words encountered would be similar to ones used often in real life – compared to Keep Talking, where numbers, colours and orientation were much more prevalent. Tick Tock was interesting and communication felt more difficult (we’ve only finished chapter 1): it’s basically kind of like an escape room with puzzles and instructions in German. I was able to figure out at least the gist of what was being said, so that wasn’t too much of a problem – the bigger challenge there was because my friend and I communicated entirely in German. Relaying instructions was tricky; there is a richer range of things that needed to be communicated (as compared to saying Vier Kabeln, rot-gelb-schwarz-weiß; thinking back the part of Keep Talking made trickiest by using German was the symbols module).

Torrential Storm (Q1+ 2020 Review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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