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.

Learning German 6: Einhundert! (100)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Different World (Thoughts on COVID-19)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limitations of the Bus Factor

Over lunch today, a friend and I discussed what we were doing in response to COVID-19. I mentioned I was working from home, and that the purpose of working from home was presumably to avoid the offices becoming a coronavirus cluster. This isn’t the same as quarantine or self-isolation in that I can and do still leave the house, attend smaller-scale social events and meet friends. The probability seems not too high, but even if I become sick the idea is that we don’t want this to spread to others on the team or at the company.

The bus factor is a simple measurement of how concentrated key personnel are in a team. It is defined as the minimum number of people that can be removed from a team before the project stalls. For example, if a shop has five employees, where everyone can restock shelves but only two people are authorised to operate the cash register, then the shop team has a bus factor of 2, since if those two people are removed the shop will not function.

Generally, a higher number is better, as it means the team can tolerate more people being unavailable. This is often used to inform risk planning, such as by prioritising context-sharing, developer documentation or other means of spreading knowledge.

However, there is quite a lot of variance within a single measurement. For example, suppose we have a team A which has two leads, and we say that the team will stall if both of them are unavailable (but only them – any other group of people becoming unavailable, including everyone but one of the leads, is okay). Also consider team B, where the absence of any two people will cause the team to stall (though no individual would). Both teams have a bus factor of 2. However, A is strictly safer than B, and it seems to be quite a large margin. I’m not sure that B is safer than a team C, where there is one absolutely critical lead (bus factor 1), for that matter.

This could get us to a concrete problem. Suppose there is a 1 percent probability that each person on a team becomes unavailable for some reason. What is the smallest number of people such that it is possible that a team with a bus factor of 2 is actually riskier than a team with a bus factor of 1?

Finding the Extremes

To answer this question, we want to find the extremes of a given Bus Factor BF in terms of risk, because we want to compare the riskiest Bus Factor 2 team against the safest Bus Factor 1 team. This drops out quite naturally: the safest team is the one where there exists one specific set of BF people which will cause operations to stall, and no other combination that is not a superset of that set is essential. Conversely, the riskiest team is one where every combination of BF people is critical. As defined above, team B is the riskiest possible Bus Factor 2 team, and team C is the safest possible Bus Factor 1 team.

Without loss of generality, let the people in the team be numbered 1, 2, \ldots, n and the lead have number 1 (or 1 and 2 in the case of team A). Let the probability that an entity E becomes unavailable be P(E_\times). Then, the probability that each team’s work stalls is as follows:

\displaystyle P(A_\times) = P(1_\times \wedge 2_\times)

\displaystyle P(B_\times) = P \left( \bigvee_{i=1}^{n} \bigvee_{j=i+1}^{n} i_\times \wedge j_\times \right)

\displaystyle P(C_\times) = P(1_\times)

These terms as written aren’t very comparable – depending on the underlying probability distributions.

Attempting to Compare Terms

I’ve used logical formulas above to avoid making claims about the underlying probability distributions. However, if we assume that the probabilities are independently and identically distributed, and we say that over some fixed period of time the probability that an individual becomes unavailable is p, then we have

\displaystyle P(A_\times) = p^2

\displaystyle P(C_\times) = p

P(B_\times) is marginally trickier. This is the probability there are at least two people who become unavailable. It is probably easier to work out the complement P(B_\times'): that is the probability zero people or one person is unavailable. If we define X as the number of people (out of n) who become unavailable, then P(B_\times') = P(X=0) + P(X=1). It’s clear that P(X=0) = (1-p)^n. P(X=1) = np(1-p)^{n-1}: the probability a specific person is unavailable and no others are is p(1-p)^{n-1}, but there are n valid versions of this. More generally, X follows what’s called a binomial distribution. Thus,

\displaystyle P(B_\times') = (1-p)^n + np(1-p)^{n-1} = (1-p)^{n-1} \left( 1 - p + np \right)

and thus

P(B_\times) = 1 - (1-p)^{n-1} \left( 1 - p + np \right)

Notice that, as expected, this is dependent on n, while the other teams A and C have probabilities that don’t depend on n. Furthermore, as n increases, P(B_\times) increases – intuitively, as you consider more people, every way in which the team was already broken ignoring the new people remains broken, but some previously unbroken states can also break. (A more mathematical argument could look at the ratios of successive terms.)


The combination of exponential and polynomial (well, linear) terms in P(B_\times) would make direct comparison with P(C_\times) difficult. We can however fix some risk probability p and find out at which value of n team B (no one is individually critical, but every pair of people is critical) has a greater probability of stalling than team C (there is a single critical lead). To answer our initial question, we choose p=0.01. Since we have a closed form for the probability of team B having issues, we can plot a graph:

It turns out the answer here, n=16 is actually relatively small in computational terms, even if it is large as far as teams are concerned. That said, the conditions for a team being the safest possible for a given bus factor are extremely strict – the sheer under-resourcing from removing people, even if they aren’t information silos or have unique knowledge, would still severely impair team function.

Learning German 5: Do Not Give The Children Cigarettes

I had my Goethe-Zertifikat A1: Start Deutsch 1 exam about 3 weeks ago. The exam has four parts: listening, reading, writing and speaking. I was most nervous about the oral exam, but once it started, I felt more comfortable. The third part of the oral exam is about making and responding to requests. One of the other candidates took a card with a “no smoking” sign on it, but I think he forgot the word “smoking”. He was smart, though, and said, “Please do not give the children cigarettes”. I think my speaking skills were good enough, though unfortunately not as humorous.

Vor drei Woche habe ich meine Goethe-Zertifikat A1 Prüfung gemacht. Die Prüfung hat vier Teilen, nämlich Lesen, Hören, Schreiben und Sprechen. Ich war am nervösesten über die mundliche Prüfung, aber als sie angefangen hat, fühle ich mich besser. Das dritte Teil der mundlichen Prüfung ist über Bitten formulieren und reagieren. Ein anderer Kandidat hat eine Karte mit einem “Rauchen verboten” Schild genommen. Ich habe gedacht, dass er hat das Wort “rauchen” vergessen. Er war intelligent, und hat gesagt “Bitte geben Sie meinen Kindern keine Zigaretten”. Ich denke, dass ich habe gut genug gesprochen, aber ich war leider nicht so lustig.

Taboo is a game where one needs to communicate a word to one’s partner, without saying a list of “taboo” words. For example, for the word “Twister” one might have Tornado, Game, Colours, Legs and Arms as taboo words. If I still wanted to go for the party game approach (which I think is easier than the tornado approach as it’s very precise if done correctly), I might say something like “Something played at a party where a wheel is spun and players contort their limbs to place them on red, green, blue or yellow circles”.

I’ve found some similarities between playing Taboo and speaking in German (and even in Mandarin), in that I can’t always use the most direct approach of communicating something. The reason for this is different: in Taboo, it is the rules of the game, while with second and third languages it is typically because I lack vocabulary required to use the most direct approach. For example, if I wanted to communicate “I want a pair of chopsticks”, I could do this easily in English or Chinese (我要筷子), but I don’t know the word for that in German (Essstäbchen, it turns out). I might thus need to work around it via description, with something like “Könnten Sie mir chinesisches Besteck geben?”. There are a number of English words that have been adopted into German, so I could just take a shot in the dark with “Geben Sie mir ein Paar Chopsticks, bitte.” which would probably get the point across especially to a German speaker, though it’s wrong.

I’ve also tried playing Taboo myself in German. Even sticking to simple sentences (to avoid struggling with stringing together subclauses or neighbouring-sentences on the fly) not having a broad vocabulary makes it tricky. For example, I saw a card with goal word Biene or bee (banned: gelb or yellow, Stachel or sting, Summen or sum, Honig or honey, Blütenstaub or pollen). In English, this isn’t very hard: “there’s a queen, they make hexagonal structures, produce golden liquid good for coughs… you can say you have this in your bonnet, or if you’re in a rush you’re making a this-line for something”. I found this tricky in German. Even trying to translate what I’d say in English, I might begin “Es hat Königin”, but it goes downhill from there (turns out hexagon is just das Hexagon, and I could improvise liquid by just saying Wasser). I wouldn’t be able to give the idioms and I’m not sure they still work in German. Effectively, all of the missing vocabulary items are permanent Taboo words.

I think one of my strengths in English communication is being able to make statements fairly precisely (for example, “I don’t have a particularly strong opinion; while I agree with (specific parts of X), I’m not confident X is correct because I am not in a position to assess (other part of X)”, or “X is correct in principle but I’m not sure it’s appropriate to implement”). I’m not there in Chinese, and definitely not in German. This can be an issue with using possibly circumlocutory descriptions – if they accidentally indicate a preference that isn’t really there. For example, for the “chinesisches Besteck” example above, one can’t fault a server that brings a soup spoon (and depending on one’s point of view, the server could be justifiably annoyed if one rejects the soup spoon and continues to make this request without qualifying it further).

Is It Someone’s Birthday Everyday? Solving the Inverse Birthday Problem

The birthday paradox is a fairly well-known but unintuitive observation that although there are normally 365 days in a year (for simplicity, ignoring leap years and assuming a uniform distribution for birthdays), with as few as 23 people it is more likely than not that two of them will share a birthday. One of my teammates proposed an inverse of this problem: what is the minimum number of people are needed so that it is more likely than not that it is someone’s birthday every day?

Modelling A Specific Instance

There’s a lot to take in here, so let’s try to solve a simpler problem first. We could attempt to solve: given a specific number of people, how would we calculate the probability that it is someone’s birthday every day? If we have this method, we can reconstruct the answer to the original problem via a search algorithm.

The more general problem here would be: suppose we have N \geq 1 people. Each person draws one of K \geq 1 events with replacement – these are equally probable and independent. What is the probability that all events occur at least once? The more general introductory problem has K = 365, but of course that’s tricky to work with right off the bat, so let’s examine a couple of the smaller cases.

Algorithmic Ideation

Base Case Analysis

If K = 1, since we said that we always have at least one person, the one possible event will happen and the probability is 1. Moving on to K = 2, here N = 1 is a special case with probability of 0. For larger N, there are two specific situations we want to avoid, where every person draws the same event (remember that there were two events). Each of these happens with probability 2^{-N} so the probability of everything occurring once would be 1 - 2 \times 2^{-N} = 1 - 2^{-N + 1}.

We can now analyze K = 3 – if N \leq 2 we definitively have probability 0. For N = 3, the first person will receive a novel outcome with certainty, but the second and third person also need novel outcomes, and this happens with probability \frac{2}{3} \times \frac{1}{3} = \frac{2}{9}. It gets a little trickier with N = 4:

  • The first person to draw an event will get a novel event. This leaves 3 people to draw events, and 2 out of 3 events undrawn. We can call this state (3, 2, 3).
  • The second person to draw an event will get a novel event with probability 2/3, putting us in the state (2, 1, 3). Alternatively, he/she will draw the same event as the first person with probability 1/3, getting us in the state (2, 2, 3).
  • If we’re in (2, 1, 3), there’s a 1/3 probability that the third person draws the last event (in which case we are done), and a 2/3 probability he doesn’t, putting us in (1, 1, 3).
  • If we’re in (1, 1, 3) we have one person who needs to draw the last event with probability 1/3.
  • If we’re in (2, 2, 3), the third person will get a novel event with probability 2/3, putting us in (1, 1, 3). He might draw the same event as the first two people, in which case we definitely failed.

More generally, we can model the problem using a state machine (a technique which I discussed two and a half years ago). The states of this machine can be written as 3-tuples (p, q, r) which means we have p people to draw events, there are r events of which q still need to be drawn. Notice that q \leq r, and that for our problem, we have r = K and we generally want to find the probability of success for the state (N, K, K).

For K = 3, N = 4 we can draw this as follows.

Recurrence Relations

We can define V(p, q, r) as the probability that transitions from the state (p, q, r) will eventually end up in a SUCCESS state, defined as (p, 0, r) for all values of p and r (as that means all events were drawn). We make some observations on simple cases:

  • V(p, 0, r) = 1. We are already in a success state by definition.
  • V(0, q \geq 1, r) = 0. If everyone has drawn an event and there are still events that haven’t occurred, there is no chance for us to draw those events.

That’s all we need, and we can look at the recursive case. In the state (p, q, r), there is a \frac{q}{r} probability that we draw a new outcome, putting us in the state (p-1, q-1, r). There is also a 1 - \frac{q}{r} probability that that doesn’t happen – in that case we’re in the state (p-1, q, r). It thus follows that

V(p, q, r) = \dfrac{q}{r} \times V(p-1, q-1, r) + \left( 1 - \dfrac{q}{r} \right) \times V(p-1, q, r)

Notice that these states are well-formed, since we handled the p=0 and q=0 base cases earlier. It is possible to optimise this by adding some more sophisticated base cases, but this still gives us a clear enough method for working out the probability. For example,

  • V(2, 1, 3) =\frac{1}{3} \times V(1, 0, 3) + \frac{2}{3} \times V(1, 1, 3) = \frac{1}{3} \times 1 + \frac{2}{3} \times \frac{1}{3} = \frac{1}{3} + \frac{2}{9} = \frac{5}{9}
  • V(2, 2, 3) =\frac{2}{3} \times V(1, 1, 3) + \frac{2}{3} \times V(1, 2, 3) = \frac{2}{3} \times \frac{1}{3} + \frac{1}{3} \times 0 = \frac{2}{9}
  • V(4, 3, 3) = V(3, 2, 3) = \frac{2}{3} \times V(2, 1, 3) + \frac{2}{3} \times V(2, 2, 3) = \frac{4}{9}


Solving The Specific Instance

The answer to our original problem, for a given number of people N is then V(N, 365, 365). Working this out by hand is likely to be painful, so we should avoid that. It’s easy to code something simple up that is based on the recurrence relation above:

private static double findSuccessProbability(long remainingPeople, long remainingEvents, long totalEvents) {
    if (remainingEvents == 0) {
        return 1.0;
    if (remainingPeople == 0) {
        return 0.0;

    double probabilityOfNewEvent = ((double) remainingEvents) / totalEvents;
    double successProbabilityOnNewEvent = findSuccessProbability(remainingPeople - 1, remainingEvents - 1, totalEvents);
    double successProbabilityOnOldEvent = findSuccessProbability(remainingPeople - 1, remainingEvents, totalEvents);

    return probabilityOfNewEvent * successProbabilityOnNewEvent
            + (1 - probabilityOfNewEvent) * successProbabilityOnOldEvent;

We can test this and verify that indeed V(4, 3, 3) = \frac{4}{9}. However, if we try to call this with, say (500, 365, 365) the program doesn’t seem to give the answer quickly.

One solution here is to use memoisation. The naive version written above ends up computing the answer for the same state potentially exponentially many times, but we can cache the results of previous computations and use them. This could be done with a map with the 3-tuple as a cache key; alternatively, a bottom-up dynamic programming solution can be written, since there’s a clear order in which we process the subproblems. In any case, these methods should get the runtime down from exponential to O(NK).

Reconstructing The General Solution

We want to find the smallest N such that V(N, 365, 365) > 0.5. We could start from N = 365 and then keep trying larger values of N: since K is constant this is actually not that bad as we can reuse the results of computations from previous attempts when trying new values of N.

public static void main(String[] args) {
    long numPeople = 365;
    double successProbability = findSuccessProbability(numPeople, 365, 365);
    while (successProbability <= 0.5) {
        successProbability = findSuccessProbability(numPeople, 365, 365);

This gives us our answer: 2287. We have V(2286, 365, 365) = 0.499414 \ldots while V(2287, 365, 365) = 0.500371 \ldots.

This approach looks a bit primitive – and normally we’d use a modified binary search where we first search for an upper bound via something that grows exponentially, and then binary search up to our bound. This works, since V(p, q, r) increases as p increases for constant q, r.

However, for this specific problem and more generally for recurrences where we end up reducing parameters by 1, we still need to burn through almost all of the smaller subproblems we skip over by isolating the bound, so it won’t actually give us that much here.

Usually when working with recurrences it is nice to find a closed-form solution for our expression (i.e. we have a general expression for V(p, q, r) that doesn’t itself reference V), though I didn’t really see how to make progress with this one.

Risks in Playing the Long Game

Monevator is one of the personal finance sites that I read fairly frequently. They have a fairly good weekly column that includes a number of interesting links, both about personal finance as well as on other topics like psychology or recent news events. The article I read yesterday begins as follows:

Unlike every other personal finance blogger around, I’ve started 2020 wondering whether it’s time I spent more money.

I would not call myself a personal finance blogger, but I had thoughts along similar lines when planning my budget for 2020. Eventually, I decided yes, and expanded the budget at the end of the planning session (and this is already after a 50% increase over 2018). My reasoning was not too different from the author’s (and the logic behind having a need for such an argument was similar as well – saving, which is a form of delaying gratification, seems to come naturally as a default to me).

In theory at least, I can work out how much £1 spent today would cost me in retirement if I was to do that at 65 if I make some assumptions. There are 37 years to go there, and if we use a 4.5% real (that is, accounting for inflation) return that becomes about £5.10. In other words, I could buy roughly five times the number of goods I could today, if I was willing to wait 37 years.

However, a large problem with excessively delaying gratification (both for money and in general) is that the expected benefit may not materialise – this is known as an interruption risk. These risks can typically take two forms:

  1. Collection risk, where the projected reward doesn’t actually become available. In context this means that the £1 I invested doesn’t become the inflation-adjusted equivalent of £5.10 37 years down the road.
  2. Termination risk, where the person delaying gratification does not get to benefit from the projected reward, even though it did become available. In context this means that although the £1 I invested does become £5.10 (or more), I don’t survive 37 more years or I do but my ability to use it is limited or hampered for some reason.

The former could arise for various reasons, as my projection was dependent on a 4.5% real return assumption. This is in line with the past 119 years – in fact that was slightly higher at 5%, though I would use 4.5% because of platform and fund fees (see Credit Suisse’s 2019 Global Investment Returns Yearbook). This pattern may not continue going forward if there are large, value-destroying events (e.g. faster than expected climate change effects, nuclear war). Even if the pattern continues, I might not be able to get this return for more local concerns (e.g. aggressive investment taxes as part of left-wing policy, if my fund of choice turns out to be poorly managed).

The latter is also very relevant. The author mentions that he’s “within striking distance of 47” and is concerned about planning 40 years ahead when using a compound interest calculator; I’m probably between fifteen or twenty years younger, and the pessimist (or realist?) in me also gets uneasy about putting 40 in that box, let alone the analogous 55-60 (e.g. see James 4:14 – whether you’re a Christian or not I think the sentiment is relatable). Even if I do make it there, it’s possible that I’d be in less of a position to enjoy the money, for time or health reasons. If I had my current financial state at the end of National Service in Singapore, for example, that 9-month period before starting university would have looked quite different and I would have done more things, some of which I’m not in a position to do right now because of work (e.g. I’d probably have done a two-month round-the-world trip).

I am still intending to be mostly frugal and saving a fair amount. Travel will likely be the largest source of expenses for me – flights and hotels are not cheap. I also spent quite a lot of money on clothing last year, though I’m trying to avoid that as I’m running up against (reasonable) storage limitations and there are quite a number of clothes that I haven’t worn for a while. Thus my plans are nowhere near as far as the author’s claim that he’ll make little effort to grow his wealth. I don’t think I’m in a position where that would be responsible, in that my current savings/portfolio are nowhere near enough to be sufficient for retirement.

Burning Lights and Falling Stars (2019 Review)

When I look back on 2019, what first comes to mind are a number of protracted struggles. These spanned a broad range of issues, from work to philosophy and from finance to logic. This was probably either the toughest or the second toughest year I’ve had since I moved to London. It’s comparable to 2016 (with MCMAS and Palantir work in parallel, and then TimeLock): in both cases I think that I’ve grown and learnt quite a fair bit over the course of the year, probably more than in other years, but also that this generally isn’t a long-term sustainable pattern.

Software Engineering

The early part of the year involved finishing up work done last year on Transactions2. This project was generally successful, though more painful than expected. There were a lot of weird bugs that took quite a lot of iteration, and since the previous dev lead with whom I worked with on this project left the team and these involved pretty deep technical knowledge it would have been very costly to ramp anyone else up. Delivery could have been improved with a bit more careful project management/planning, but in terms of technical execution I think I performed at or slightly above my personal bar here.

I became a tech lead in March and then a more general team lead later on. A lot of the year involved me trying to get comfortable with the roles; it was a conscious decision to focus more on that as opposed to further refining technical execution of individual projects.

The former focuses on making architectural decisions, prioritising feature and support work, being a representative of the team at higher-level meetings, and being responsible for communicating thoughts and ideas with other teams. The first two things I think were expected to go mostly smoothly, and did: I already contributed to quite a bit of these while “strictly” an IC, and I definitely consulted the leads at the time and then jumped in on things I thought were more important than the work I was originally planning on doing. I maintain a lot of context on what’s going on on the team and product, and am aware that my input on these is valued quite well. The latter two also turned out to have worked better than I expected, in that feedback has generally been positive with regard to communication and argumentation. I also don’t think I’m where I’d like to be with regards to coming up with ideas for things to do (as opposed to, given a list of features, filter them for feasibility/benefit and then prioritise them) though there are of course support structures for that.

The latter role seems to also involve project management, and developing other members of the team to become stronger engineers. This hasn’t gone as well. I think it’s not so much a question of not wanting to do it or investing in it, but instead not being efficient by making an invalid assumption that others would follow the same growth path as me (which is basically mostly by absorption and from figuring things out as they come up). That by itself is maybe reasonable in terms of expectations (I think it worked very well in my case), but I took a long time to course-correct. It looks a bit ironic that why I took a long time to course-correct was because my bandwidth was strained on a lot more pressing things because I felt I needed to handle them directly, and the antidote to that is scaling myself by investing in team members’ growth.

I continued to work on some technical projects throughout the year, though not as intensely as in 2017 or 2018 probably by design. I’d probably say that the highlights were the two hackweek projects that I did. The Summer project is going into production, and involved careful reasoning through the AtlasDB development stack. The Winter project came with a bit of a pleasant surprise: my efforts on being thoughtful about interviews landed a runner-up for use of tech, which I really wasn’t expecting; I did the project more because I saw a relevant need.

Recreation and Personal Development

A fairly common theme here is skill development – there’s some evidence of this in terms of Sudoku and German, both of which are things I spend a fair bit of my free time on.

Sudoku and Logic Puzzles

I set a goal to achieve a global rank in the top 100 of the World Puzzle Federation Sudoku and Puzzle GPs. This was achieved in both cases: I finished with rank 66 in Sudoku and 92 in Puzzles. The contests run monthly (I think it’s actually every 4 weeks) from January to August.

Each Sudoku contest is basically an exam paper which is marked out of 600, though additional points can be obtained by submitting a fully correct paper before time is up. There are 8 contests, and the overall GP ranking is based on the sum of the six highest scores. I was at around the 350/600 mark at the end of last year, and so was expecting a final score of about 2200 or so (allowing for discards of bad results), but I probably got slightly better over the year and managed to finish with 2504. Puzzles went less smoothly as I missed the first round as I was on holiday and had a really bad round 6 where I chose very tough puzzles to attack, but I still squeaked over the top-100 line.


I started learning German this year. I think I began with Lingvist and Duolingo around May or so, and then started formal lessons in June. I have lessons once a week for 1.5 hours. I was originally hoping to take the A1 exam by the end of this year – this is currently planned for January, though my teacher’s quite confident that I won’t have issues. Nonetheless I do think I’ve made substantial progress.

I hoped to push on towards A2 actually. It’s unclear if I am at A2: while the CEFR descriptors don’t look too hard at that level (I feel I can satisfy almost all of the criteria), I’m aware there’s quite a lot of grammatical knowledge expected at A2 that I don’t know or am not confident about (e.g. irregular verbs in the simple past, passive voice). I’ve tried the Hören, Lesen and Schreiben (listening, reading and writing) sections of various exams aimed at the A2 level, like the telc A2 and UK GCSEs (I’m saving the Goethe papers for when I actually do that exam) and generally have been able to do quite well on them (i.e. above 80% on telc A2, Grade 9s on the GCSE components – maybe not writing), though admittedly Sprechen (speaking) is the part I’m most concerned about.

Travel and Exploration

Travel this year included four trips to Singapore (two were based around weddings). I also visited Zürich multiple times, Japan, Brussels, Boston, Stockholm and Palo Alto (though mostly for work). I did not travel as much as I wanted to outside of work, possibly because of prioritising other goals (I mainly worked on logic puzzles and German on the weekends) though actually they aren’t that incompatible (e.g. a flight is a good amount of time to work on learning German).

I really enjoyed the Japan trip (highlights included the Sankei-en Garden, Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum and Ginza Tamai), and though the wedding trips were short (just 3-4 days in Singapore each time) I don’t regret them at all. Travelling is interesting: I don’t always look forward to the trips (especially the work ones) but almost always enjoy them. It’s possible there’s some sunk-cost fallacy here, though that’s mitigated by me not directly paying for the work trips in terms of money (still in terms of time, of course).


I generally looked at my portfolio quite a bit less after Q2, perhaps because I invested more resources in my new role at work and also because there generally was a fair bit of non-actionable stress.

Savings Rate

There are several ways to slice this: Savings Rate #4 from this post is what I normally use. In a UK context, define S_1 as workplace pension contributions, S_2 as individual pension contributions (e.g. SIPPs), S_3 as other savings (ISAs, taxable accounts), C as consumption and D as tax changes derived from taxable benefits. Furthermore, define \tau as the tax rate expected when one withdraws from one’s pensions. Then

SR = \dfrac{\tau(S_1 + S_2) + S_3}{\tau(S_1 + S_2) + S_3 + C + D}

Roughly 55% this year, up two percentage points from last year (looking at it, my expenses did increase quite a lot from last year, but not by as much as the raise I received, so this makes sense). This is in a pretty reasonable spot.

Discipline in Spending

I’ll paste an extract from the essay I wrote on my birthday this year, that captures the major spending increases here:

  • Groceries has had an increasing trend year-on-year, going up by 50% from 2017 to 2018, and another 26% this year. Some of this is because I patronise M&S nowadays; I actually find the food tastes better. The ”three meat or fish items for £10” deals were something I used to scorn in first year at university, calling it absurdly expensive; I now actually use that on occasion.
  • Gifts has increased to 2x over last year. I think this is natural, seeing as my financial position is a bit more stable now. I also definitely recognise that I don’t have infinite time to use this.
  • Travel has increased to 2.5x over last year, as part of a generally increasing trend. This is fine as long as it doesn’t increase exponentially from here. Some of this is also probably because I started thinking about flying slightly more premium cabins (premium economy or even business), and where this is not the case booking extra legroom seats. It seems I also can spend quite a bit when making “bleisure” trips, such as to Boston and Palo Alto. I think that’s okay, though – especially if I’m spending it on interesting experiences (and not tat).
  • Clothing has increased to 2x over last year. I have lumped shoes into clothing and that is certainly a part of the cost, but that definitely doesn’t explain the whole delta. I think it tends to be a large number of items as opposed to individually expensive ones – perhaps it’s a form of retail therapy? I think something actionable here might be to implement a one-in-one-out policy in 2020. £28.74 per week for clothes is concerning. This does cluster (e.g. I spent £250 in the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, including on a pair of Nudie raw denim and two pairs of Converse that should hopefully last) but it’s still more than I would expect. I’d view most articles of clothing apart from shoes to generally be luxuries at £28.74, and I certainly don’t feel like I’m buying one such treat per week.

There’s still some discipline, in that my savings rate has increased in spite of these trends, and in most cases (apart from the clothing one) the increases are justified and were made (mostly) thoughtfully. I have to deduct points for the clothing-as-retail-therapy thing though.

Learning German 4: German GCSEs – Lesen/Reading

By now, I’ve taken learning German more seriously for half a year. It’s still difficult, especially speaking and writing. I tried the German GCSE exam for reading, and managed to get a grade 9 with 49 points out of 60 (that’s the highest possible grade in GCSE). However, I’m still not confident. I find building sentences problematic if I want to talk about more complex things. Reading is slightly easier, but I won’t know if a sentence is wrong!

Mittlerweile lerne ich seit ein halb Jahr Deutsch. Es ist noch schwierig, besonders sprechen und schreiben. Ich hatte die Deutsch GCSE-Prüfüngen für Lesen probiert. Ich habe im Prüfüngen einen Neun (das ist die höchstmögliche Note) mit 49/60 Punkten erzielt, aber ich habe noch kein Konfidenz. Ich finde Satzbau problematisch, wenn ich komplexe Dinge sagen will. Lesen ist ein bisschen einfacher, aber ich werde nicht wissen ob ein Satz falsch ist. 

The paper I tried out specifically was the June 2018 exam for AQA GCSE German. This qualification is assessed over four papers, which attempt to test the four common language skills – Paper 1 tests listening, Paper 2 speaking, Paper 3 reading and Paper 4 writing. I found it interesting to see how an attempt is made to segment performance by limiting the extent to which the skills not being assessed are required. For example, in Papers 1 and 3 many questions ask for answers in English, and for the sections where answers are required in German full sentences generally aren’t needed, and linguistic errors generally aren’t penalised unless they affect clarity.

I tried out Paper 3 first, largely for practical reasons – I will probably do Paper 1 at some point, as the sound files are also available online. I can’t quite administer Paper 2 to myself, and for Paper 4 I’d need someone to evaluate my own writing, as I’m certainly not in a position to do that yet. I attempted the Higher paper, which is aimed at students seeking to get a grade between 4 and 9 (recall that passing grades range from 1 to 9). I wasn’t confident of getting a super high grade as I’ve only studied German on-and-off for around seven months or so; GCSE courses typically run for two years. Nonetheless, I managed to scrape it (the grade boundary for 9 was at 48 of 60, and I scored 49 – note that 48 is good enough, so I had one point of breathing room).

The paper is divided into three sections; the first involves reading texts and responding in English, the second is similar to the first but in German, and the third involves translating a German passage back to English. Generally, within each section difficulty increases, which led to a rather non-monotonic difficulty curve. Q8 at the end of Section A was probably a question aimed at top students, while Q9, the first question of Section B was a crossover with Foundation Tier, so aimed towards the lower end of the Higher Tier range.

I also found the translation task fairly straightforward – I knew all of the words apart from Bauernhof, and based on context (working with animals, starting the day early, hard work) along with guessing from prefixes (Bau– for construction: it turns out Bauer means farmer but I didn’t know that as well, and –hof for yard e.g. from Bahnhof – train station – or Friedhof – cemetery) guessed it correctly as farm. My natural tendency to aim for precision seemed to work very well on this question.

Most of the marks lost came from holes in my German vocabulary. There were questions that asked for specific features of the text to be described in English, and these often effectively reduced to questions about the definitions of specific words. For example, there were questions that effectively asked what Dieb (thief), enspannen (relax), vermeiden (avoid) or lügen (lie, as in telling an untruth), none of which I knew, meant – I was able to figure out from context that that word was the desired answer, but had to guess when translating. Interestingly, if I was asked to write the answer in German (being allowed to lift) I would have scored these marks!

There were also a few marks which were lost because of carelessness. I’m aware that trying to pick out keywords and translating them is often a trap, yet I still ended up making some of these mistakes. For example, on the first question which involved reading people’s descriptions of what they did to help the environment, I accidentally described someone who said Meine Eltern haben immer ihren Müll getrennt, aber … habe ich nichts gemacht as saying they separated their trash. I probably got too excited about knowing what getrennt meant – it’s often used when asking if a bill is to be split in restaurants – and wrote down “separating trash”. The correct answer is of course, nothing – the separation was done by their parents, not them!

I’m not entirely sure this grade 9 is secure, being just two points away from an 8. That said, the 7-8 boundary is at 41, so I’m quite confident of at least an 8. This also means that if I was to take the entire GCSE qualification an overall 9 probably wouldn’t happen, as I’d see reading as the language skill I’m currently most confident in in German. Students have overall grades calculated based on the sum of their marks in each of the four papers – while a candidate doesn’t need to get a 9 in each component, any marks below the 9 boundary in one paper must generally be offset by marks in other papers. I’m not sure what standard is expected, but I won’t be too surprised if I struggle to get a 5 in Schreiben (writing) or Sprechen (speaking).