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I had a somewhat nasty chest infection over last week. It seemed to reach its peak last Sunday. I think “incapacitation” describes what happened fairly well; I felt like I was consistently running headfirst into an imaginary wall. I slept for about 4 hours on Sunday afternoon, and another 12 at night; probably at least 11 if not 12 on Monday evening as well.

I think I recovered somewhat through the week, though not yet completely. It was enough to host a programming contest on Friday, and to sing (though not convincingly) on Friday evening as well. It has been quite a while since I had been unwell to this extent. I don’t think I’ve had anything of this scale since I started studying at Imperial 5 years ago.

It served as a good reminder of the importance of health, something which I tend to not really think about very much. The cough did get in the way of my sleep as well, so I spent a good amount of time thinking. These thoughts ranged over quite a number of issues, including goals, planning, work and logic. I’m sure some of these must have been influenced by said illness, but there were some actionable ideas and thoughts. I did think about two aspects of what I call the “dark side of compound interest”: (i) the possibility that one may not be around to enjoy the results, and (ii) the inclination to discount present purchases by a lot by thinking about their value in the far future. I don’t think my chest infection was that serious at all, but (i) certainly looks influenced by it.

The post for this week is much shorter than normal, as I haven’t been able to gather the mental resources to write much longer. This also isn’t one of those “if I had time, I would have written a shorter letter” scenarios, to be clear! I’ve been making an effort to produce somewhat more readable and simpler writing. I think it’s a sufficient status update.

Jeremy’s Best of 2016

This was inspired by a YouGov article that I read. It can be interesting to look at some of the polling data (not just for elections/political things – YouGov does lots of interesting research). I’m largely in agreement with Surowiecki’s “wisdom of the crowds” for the scenarios he has identified – but these are actually quite rare (wise crowds should arrive at their decisions independently, and some should be able to draw on some form of local knowledge); when I think of decisions made by a crowd I often think of asset bubbles (but this fails independence).

Nonetheless, this post is intended to finish the year on a relatively lighter note. I find myself agreeing with the crowd that 2016 has been painful, for the world and for both the countries I find some degree of attachment to, though personally it has actually been pretty decent. For 2017 I’m cautiously bullish on myself, partly out of pragmatism (I don’t see the value in being too bearish for things within my sphere of influence). I’d say I’m pretty ambivalent, if slightly bearish as far as the rest of the world is concerned – I do think Brexit and President Trump do have possible upsides even if I don’t think I would have opted for the additional volatility introduced by each. There is news that’s clearly negative to me, such as the events in Syria. Nonetheless my investing habits would say I’m an optimist – I continued buying through the drawdown in Februrary, piled in after the Brexit vote and would have after Trump had the markets stayed down.

Unfortunately I couldn’t really answer many of the categories (e.g. favourite film/actor/actress). I’ll add a few other categories which I think I would find more interesting to talk about.

This is quite long, so here’s a table of contents.

Best music act / artist of 2016

YouGov poll vote: Adele.
JK concurs, though weakly.
Honorable mention: Nil.

Huh. 25 was released last year, though I guess it’s fair game; if you asked me to assign this last year I’d probably have said Macklemore, because of Starting Over, Otherside and Can’t Hold Us (all 2013). It’s hard for me to pick a clear winner this year; I have been listening to Daughtry (It’s Not Over and Home have really nice acoustic versions, though they’re from 2006!), James Arthur (Impossible from 2012, mainly) and, strangely, the Backstreet Boys (Show Me The Meaning, 1999 and Shape Of My Heart, 2000) a fair bit. Hello is powerful, though I’d probably opt for Million Years Ago as my winner here. I normally find numerical hyperbole annoying, but it worked for me here.

I guess I’ll define “of 2016” as being something I experienced or discovered in 2016, independent of when it was actually produced. That does hold for Adele’s 25, certainly.

Best sporting event of 2016

YouGov poll vote: Rio 2016.
JK concurs.
Honorable mention: Cubs win the World Series.

I’d think for many countries this is a completely unsurprising result.

I don’t follow baseball (or sport, for that matter) closely at all, but I know the Cubs win was very well received at work and I guess by proxy enjoyed the moment. I was a little surprised to not see it on the board, but then I remembered I work in a US based company.

Best event of 2016

YouGov poll vote: Rio 2016.
JK: 100% on MCMAS-Dynamic. (Something personal – 3rd on the poll.)
Honorable mention: Graduation at Imperial. (Another personal thing – 3rd on the poll.)

I don’t follow sports closely. From the rest of the post you can figure out that I’m not a supporter of Brexit, so the top two are off the board. My grades were always pretty solid, but I guess this was a form of validation of performance across multiple cohorts (as debatable as those last few points can get when grading projects…). The cherry on the cake was balancing it with part-time contracting work at Palantir.

Graduation was fun, in spite of my complaints that a lot of it was symbolic. For me, I’d say its value was centered around reminiscing with some of the professors who’ve played an active role in my studies (Ally, Duncan and Tony, most notably), having a good talk with two close friends who aren’t in the UK any more (we still talk, but face to face meetings are more enjoyable), catching up with some of my other close friends and coursemates in general.

Worst event of 2016

YouGov poll vote: Brexit vote.
JK: Implosion of the opposition in the UK. (8th on the poll.)
Honorable mention: Syrian conflicts. (3rd on the poll.)

It’s really tough to pin this on a single event. I lean conservative, but a credible opposition is a good thing to have.

Interestingly, “something personal” was not on the board at all, though I guess people might be a bit more reluctant to share such negative events. That said, surely “something personal” (without further clarification) as a worst answer is valid?

Biggest impact on the world in 2016

YouGov poll vote: Donald Trump.
JK emphatically concurs.
Honorable mention: David Cameron. (4th on the poll.)

I don’t have any other candidates for this; I’ve picked the main enablers of the two massive news events for me this year. If Clinton won and the vote was to Remain I really wouldn’t know. Obama, perhaps?

New word/phrase from 2016 that sums up the year

YouGov poll vote: Brexit.
JK: Post-truth. (2nd on the poll.)
Honorable mention: Brexit. (1st on the poll.)

As far as I’m concerned Brexit is small potatoes compared to the Trump election, though I think I can see why some respondents went with Brexit anyway – Trump himself described his election as being “Brexit-plus-plus-plus”, and I agree. We then had the Article 50 court case, and while I do see issues with not implementing Brexit (since that was what was voted for), the court case wasn’t exactly about that, and branding the judges “Enemies of the People” was unacceptable. (Though to be fair that’s also related to Brexit.)

The profane options (3rd and 5th) are a fine response, I’d say.  I had to look up “lit” (4th; intoxicated?) and “dab” (6th; a kind of dance) – the former makes sense, I’m not so sure about the latter. Perhaps it bears some kind of connotation that I’m not aware of?

I’ve left out some of the more entertainment-related categories featured earlier in the article, but added two more that are relevant to me:

Favourite book/paper/article of 2016

JK: “Stock Series“, Jim Collins (jlcollinsnh)
Honorable mention: “Symbolic Implementation of Alternating Automata“, Bloem et al.

I’ve been passive investing for slightly over a year and half now, as far as I can tell. I’ve always been pretty frugal. Nonetheless I’d say this was a very well presented introduction to private investment and was useful for corroborating some of the existing knowledge I’d picked up along the way reading Monevator and other personal finance blogs.

Of course, past performance is no indicator of future returns. My own portfolio doesn’t fully coincide with his growth approach (VTSAX/VTI + cash), in that I hold a small slug of REITs, go international and attempt tilting (value, small-caps, EM). I think all-domestic is debatable in the US whilst probably unreasonable elsewhere, though I’m not doing say pure VNRT or HSBC’s American Index Fund + cash either. For a one fund portfolio VTSAX/VTI seem like good ideas; I might prefer the world trackers VWRL (not cheap at 0.25% OCF, though), HMWO (0.15%) or MBWA (0.20%), though they come at a cost so I can see an argument to stick with the VTSAX (0.05%).

The second paper helped me understand the “breakpoint construction”, a technique for converting an alternating automaton (think finite-state machine where one travels infinite paths and can be in multiple states at the same time) to an equivalent nondeterminstic Buchi automaton (finite-state machine, where one travels infinite paths, but is only in one state at a time) with potentially many more states. It’s a huge mess to explain and I think the paper helped quite a fair bit in understanding how to utilise this construction.

Favourite game of 2016

JK: “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes”, Steel Crate Games
Honorable mention: “Fallout 4”, Bethesda Studios

Generally I don’t play video games too much, though having other players (especially friends) certainly helps. After a while, we knew to asynchronously dispatch blocking modules quickly (Passwords, Complicated Wires), got better at reading Morse Code, and I remembered how to solve Simon Says with no strikes and parts of the Large Button tasks without needing the manual. (“Double Trouble” was as far as we got, I think… “I Am Hardcore” not yet, unfortunately.)

As a bonus, I decided I wanted to mod some elements of the game (mainly to add additional modules that tested anagram skills, certain properties concerning loop termination, and relationships in finite-length sequences of numbers). I thus meddled around with Unity a little, and also revisited C# which I hadn’t used for two years. That’s actually the challenge you see in the picture at the top: the game picks an 8 letter word which has no one-word anagrams apart from itself. It shuffles the letters and then encodes each using a shift cipher (it actually uses 8 shift ciphers, one for each button) based on the button index and certain characteristics of the bomb (such as its serial number, batteries and ports). Solving the module is thus simply reversing the ciphers and decoding the anagram, but doing that under pressure can be tricky.

I haven’t played the game for a while given that most of the bomb defusal squad (if you can call it that) is no longer based in London, but I really enjoyed the times we did play.

Fallout 4 was pretty fun the first time round; after that not so much. After finishing the main storyline (going with the Minutemen ending) I started optimising things a bit more aggressively and the game got considerably easier, even on Very Hard (I’m terrible at FPS games, but certain combinations of perks synergised pretty well). The VATS system was even the basis for a dynamic programming loop induction proof I gave my tutees.

Stepping Back

I met up with a couple of my closest friends from uni over the weekend. At the end of what was a rather tough week (plugging away at debugging several issues regarding distributed systems) where everything seemed to center around getting a bunch of servers to behave as I wanted them to, it felt very different and somewhat refreshing to take a step back. I’m usually quite capable of focusing aggressively on a task at hand, which usually is good as far as said task is concerned but may not be optimal in general terms.

We played Loaded Questions, and one of the questions that came up was what we didn’t like about our professions. Being a bunch of Computing alumni, the set of answers was probably not too surprising:

  1. The salary.
  2. It’s difficult to measure performance.
  3. The algorithms are too complex.

I contributed #2 (though to be fair, thinking that I submitted either of the other answers is not entirely unreasonable – from an earlier post you can see that I investigated what looked like a 1 basis point shortfall in interest payments, and I just said that I had a tough week with debugging). Though I’ve tried to consider frameworks for evaluating this, I frequently find myself using outcomes and deliverables as primary measures of performance. This leads to me assessing myself based on my ability to get things done regardless of the costs or means required, and there are many factors beyond my control that can influence these.

I think this is a bigger issue when dealing with areas where I tend to believe I’m largely in control of the volume and quality of “output”, whatever that means. For example, as far as my investment portfolio is concerned, I tend to prefer to set goals along the lines of “set aside at least N for investment, incurring fees less than F” (largely controllable), rather than “portfolio net worth to be at least N” (I don’t believe I have the edge or insight to be able to be in control of such goals). I like to think software is a domain where I do exercise quite a bit of control over what I write, so it certainly is an issue in that sense.

In any case, I was happy to have had the opportunity to cool off a little. I think it’s a good thing that I can and do take my work pretty seriously (it has led to reasonably solid results in the past), even if it comes with the occasional tradeoff of getting excessively absorbed in it. On balance I think it’s a positive trait to have, but it’s important to remember that there are many things beyond whether an invariant holds in a bunch of servers.

New Home

I thought I’d establish a little corner of the Internet to document some of my work, as well as my individual profile. The site’s still under construction – watch this space for updates.