Short version: Thoughts on this year’s blog, and what is to come next year.
Sydney, Australia, has a world famous fireworks display to mark the new year. This year, due to raging bush fires, there has been a call to cancel the display. This could only be symbolic, given that the contracts had been signed and the money paid. The fireworks went ahead. I think about the framing a former PM used, that climate change is “the greatest moral challenge of our generation”. That was 12 years ago. While a lack of economic literacy leads to the idea that the costs of the fireworks show could somehow be redirected to fight the fires, it is a deeper problem in human nature that allows the cost of dealing with climate change to grow impossibly in the future, rather than taking less painful action today. I feel another man made disaster gripping Australia, the obesity epidemic, to have similar roots.
It is difficult to think about the end of a year and the start of a new one without thinking about the scale of the challenges ahead. This briefing highlights how quickly time is running out to cut emissions. With governments in power across the English speaking world that so effectively wield tools of misinformation, I fear for our collective ability to make the right decisions. They are uncomfortable choices to make, but the consequences of ignoring them are going to be so much worse.
Reflection on 2019 Blog Posts
At the start of 2019 I wrote that “Last year I managed 11 posts out of 52 weeks for a 21% success rate.” It makes me proud to have hit “publish” for each week of 2019, though many came late. In total the posts came to a little over 30,000 words. They lack the quality and coherency of a novel or a thesis, but it has been a learning process, and reflects many of the topics I thought about in the last year.
Some favourites included: In Week 38 I looked at the carbon costs in consuming New Zealand apples in the UK, which alongside Week 4 (on plant vs animal protein) are the two posts I’ve most often shared over a meal. Scientific content peaked when I focused on sharing papers, such as Altmetric in Week 8 and cover pages in Week 29. In Week 39 when explaining microwave ovens, I painfully came across the perfect article only after I had written most of the content. The data set I used writing about consumption in Week 48 was the most fun to explore.
Goals for 2020 Blog
The amount of content on berglabs as a whole has increased at least 5-fold in the last year. A reorganisation is due. It’s not easy to find content on the blog. Certain themes, like nutrition, or summaries of academic work, could be better grouped. I hope to reorganise the tags to make things a little easier to find. I aspire to write longer more coherent pieces, but cannot sustain that weekly, and so perhaps a monthly or quarterly essay to give more time to go deeper into a topic. A projects page may help me find collaborators, or pitch ideas that I would like to see in the world (inspired by Kevin Lynagh). I’ve also been toying with a page dedicated to people I think should be on pedestals, and a page announcing my values, the few things I believe to be clearly “good” or “bad”.
Short version: In the last two weeks of 2019 I take a look back at 2019.
Hello and Happy Holidays
As the days remaining in 2019 enter the single digits, there is a general sense that now is the time to look back at year gone past, and to reach out to friends and family who are missed. However and whenever you come to these posts, I hope that you are well, and the year past has held many joyful moments. I hope, too, that you have been challenged, put under pressure, and even suffered a little, and that you have come through that stronger and better for it. I feel fortunate that the past year has been just that for me. Here are some thoughts:
Physical and mental health were consistently good, with a couple dips towards the end. Living in Oxford I have good access to health services, particularly a work environment that understands the importance of mental health. I lost approximately 4 days to physical or mental illness, and required no significant interventions.
At ONI I continue to have the privilege of working in an exceptional research and development team. Much of that work is confidential, but avoiding specifics I am proud to have helped make some significant breakthroughs alongside some incredible scientists. I am confident super resolution will play a significant role as bio-technology advances, and it is incredibly exciting to have a job where I work at the cutting edge of that advance.
Aside from what I learn at the lab bench, I’ve also been taking the opportunity to learn from articles, podcasts, text books, and online courses. I’ve been enjoying Rafael Irizarry‘s textbook and courses on data science, the economist‘s coverage of current affairs. I feel fortunate to live in a time where I can communicate with other researchers from nearly anywhere in the world, either through their publications or via social media.
Combining work, this blog, and other personal projects, I have written more in 2019 than any year prior. Next week I intend to look back through this year’s blog posts, picking up corrections, and outlining some goals and challenges for myself in the coming year. It has been an emotional and intellectual challenge, grappling with my insecurities and ignorance alike, but I feel it has been immensely rewarding and I am excited to develop my writing in the years to come.
Although the last two races have been disappointing, I have continued to build on the fitness progress of 2018, with highlights being a 10k PB, a marathon PB, my first triathlon, and learning to row.
In short, consider this split of votes: White chocolate party – 14% Milk chocolate party – 29% Dark chocolate party – 26% No chocolate party – 31%
Most people want some chocolate, but because those groups are fairly evenly split between Milk and Dark, with a small group of white chocolate supporters, the 31% minority of anti-chocolate voters has the largest vote share and wins. This voting system is sometimes called “Winner takes all”, which is accurate.
Ultimately, the problem I have been thinking on and made little progress with is that these “rules of the game” are relatively insignificant compared with the more general problem of communication, education, and achieving consensus about how we ought live our lives and structure our societies. Big problems, like climate change, public health, and violence, require broad participation more than the selection of specific policy makers. Whilst I would support electoral reform, it is more important to understand why people make individual decisions against their own interests.
This week I was part of a volunteer group that got together to discuss what we could do to help solve local homelessness. The discussions we had with people who live on the the streets and paths of Oxford mirrored those from the related episode of “You can’t ask that“, with the main difference being most of the homeless community in Oxford were not as interested in talking. Those similarities included a diversity of reasons for being on the street, but a sadly common experience with violence.
It was humbling to be reminded how fortunate I am to have my physical and mental health, my friends, and my ability to work. I do not think it is healthy to compare struggles with those of others, but I do think it is right to appreciate the small things that can so easily be taken for granted. Clean socks, being able and willing to clean my teeth regularly, and a stove to cook on, would not usually be exciting in a world of technological marvels, but they are wonderful to have and painful to go without.
Illusion of the Year
The illusion of the year was awarded to the Dual Axis illusion. The multiple interpretations highlight how our vision is fundamentally two dimensional, and the construction of a third spatial dimension from this information can be ambiguous. Ultimately I feel this is the problem with the uptake of virtual reality headsets, that the apparent increase in dimensional space is minor since we really only perceive in two dimensions anyway. Another observation here is that if we were truly aware of 3D, untangling knots would be as simple as solving two dimensional mazes, but we are easily confused by string passing over and under itself.
Short version: Some thoughts around the topic of conspiracy theories.
Two reasons to engage Sometimes I go on the internet and peer into the worlds of groups I don’t agree with. Conspiracy theorists are one such group. A positive reason to read conspiracy theories is the logical and rhetorical exercise; training comprehension and critical thinking skills to see through fallacious logic. A negative reason is to feel a sense of superiority by mocking flawed beliefs. My experience is a mix of the two.
The internet The internet has been a powerful tool for allowing people to find others with similar interests. Previously the rarer an interest, the less likely an idnividual would be to find others who shared that interest, no matter how passionate they were. Now a small number of sufficiently enthusiastic people can build wikis, forums, and social media presences to connect and commune. Whilst this is wonderful for achieving plurality of interests, it can also result in a harmful echo chamber. Mixed with the serious support communities and trivial meme pages are hate groups and trouble makers.
Why I think people care The value conspiracy theories provide their believers is that (1) they provide a compelling narrative to explain something difficult to contemplate and (2) that people have a natural excitement about and fixation on secrets. 1. Conspiracy theories tend to centre around fear inducing events, e.g. assinations, terrorist plots, diseases. It is an uncomfortable state to not know or understand why an event came to pass, and extremely disturbing events cannot be ignored. The idea that such events are orchestrated by some powerful group (much like a deity) is compelling because it answers the “why” that cannot be silenced, in place of a much more difficult and potentially impossible journey to understand the true causes. 2. Knowing that a certain piece of information is “secret” increases its percieved value. As we approach Christmas, consider that much of the excitement of a wrapped present is the initial discovery of what it contains. People are generally much more interested in speculating about what is contained in secret documents than they are interested in reading those documents when they become public. The feeling of “being in on a secret” creates a sense of power or insight, which encourages the retention of that belief.
A useful data point I suspect conspiracy theories give a useful insight into gaps of understanding, and where areas of doubt intersect areas of intrigue. The topics that conspiracy theories center on require enough initial interest to attract attention in the first place, but also need to be sufficiently complex that there is room for compelling alternative conceptions.
How I would have liked to write this section Ideally I would have picked a few of the most popular conspiracy theories (e.g. the moon landing was faked, something about aliens, something about the illuminati) and pointed out some of the flaws. Perhaps even constructing a conspiracy theory of my own as a demonstration of how if a conclusion is taken to be true, all evidence can be warped to meet that conclusion. This would lead nicely to a comparison with generally accepted methods of hypothesis testing. Unfortuantely I did not have time to do so.
Short version: This Black Friday weekend is a relevant time to attempt to press my thoughts on consumerism into a post. A revealing ONS data set about household spending. Also some thoughts on blogging and whales’ heart beats.
A note on structure
On top of a tangled set of thoughts about consumption, there was a lot of interesting content to read, listen to, and watch on this topic. The structure of this post suffered, and so if you’re just here to skim I suggest scroll down to the bottom and just check out Trends from the data and Whales’ Heart Beats.
I want stuff. Lots of people also want stuff. Often, if they can, they go out and buy stuff. This is a simple thought, but the many paths it leads down have been a tangle in my mind for some time. This post is an attempt to rectify the clash between the obvious value in markets and trade with the absurdity of waste (see the two videos below) in modern developed economies. This is highlighted by celebrations of consumerism that occur after Thanksgiving.
Chasers War on Waste
The true cost of fast fashion | The Economist
People want to be rich
I think it is reasonable to presume the overwhelming majority of people would like to have more money. Money provides security, safety, and freedom (and most of lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Casey Neistat points out that for a lot of people, money will solve all problems. although people with plenty of money still have problems.
This simple desire for material wealth gets complicated by how different that desire looks at different points of time. The majority of people in the developed world have access to goods and services that were restricted to only the most wealthy only decades ago. Advances in agriculture and medicine mean even the poorest citizens have access to goods like pineapples and penicillin that would have been unimaginable to emperors and kings of centuries past. This Louis CK bit makes light of changing expectations. That desire for newer and shinier at the expense of appreciation for what we already have is, in part, created by the desire for companies to grow their sales and profits. An array of narratives are pushed through advertising. A particularly disturbing yet powerful lie is that you can change who you are simply by owning something. The idea that you can be fitter/sexier/smarter by buying something, rather than by learning or growing, sells a lot of products, despite failing their buyers.
School of Life: History of Consumerism
Black Friday is a day of discounted selling by retailers following Thanksgiving Day, which is observed by shops throughout much of the world. Scenes of people rushing into stores and fighting over relatively cheaper items are symbolic of a period of significant spending by consumers as the end of the year, and particularly Christmas, approaches.
A lot of people work in retail. In Australia, it is 1.3 million, nearly 10% of the labour force. This is an enormous amount of human life dedicated to the mere act of selling things (1.8 Australian lifetimes is spent per working hour by the collective in shops, life expectancy in Australia = 82.5 years). Intuitively (and so simplistically as to be utterly inaccurate) this struck me as a waste of time, given retail exists as a middle man between producers and consumers. Of course in reality at points retailers make the entire system more efficient (for example by collecting fruit and milk in bulk and distributing it to stores in lieu of each consumer visiting a farm individually), but in practice profit incentives drive this enormous work force to motivate us all to consumer more.
One way consumption is driven is through pricing. The decision to purchase an item is in part determined by the price attached to that item. Commonly items are priced at X.99 rather than X+1, because that centipoint increase is far more psychologically significant than the additional profit. A further extreme of this is quantum pricing where fewer price points mean profit margins are obfuscated. The discounts of Black Friday create the perception that shoppers are saving money by buying things at a lower price than they would otherwise, combined with a false scarcity that this is the only time to buy. In reality most consumer goods depreciate rapidly so any future time is a better time to buy. Less scrupulous stores raise prices before the sales only to mark down to pre-sale prices. One clear sign of the power of this frenzied overconsumption is the willingness for people to take on debt to purchase luxuries. Loan Sharks take advantage of Black Friday pressures to consume.
Interesting observations from some actual data
A few weeks ago I came across the BBC series “My Money“, which takes individualsand looks attheir spending over a week. My fascination with how other people spend money stems from not having a good answer to “What is the appropriate/correct/optimal amount to spend on X”. There are intuitive answers to this, which is why spending £100 a week on cheese or £5 a quarter on electricity “feel” high and low, but that intuition is shaped by our relatively limited insight into other’s spending (likely dominated by our parents’ and partners’ habits) augmented by the media we consume, particularly the coercive forces of marketing.
I am consistently frustrated with the concept of normal. There are no “normal” people in the same way there is no way to roll 3.5 (the centre of the normal distribution for values) on a 6 sided die. This video featuring wrestler John Cena emphasises the difficulty in describing an “average” american. However discovering the UK’s Office of National Statistics collects and compiles data on household expenditure (among other things), and produces reports on the distribution of spending, provides data on where the distributions actually lie. I found exploring the data fascinating. I was particularly excited to find this data set breaking down typical weekly expenditure by item in pretty specific categories (e.g. “Cheese”, “Books”, and “Package Holidays – UK” are separate categories).
Here are some observations:
The big picture: income and expenditure
The distribution of incomes in the UK gives an insight into what households can actually afford.
The interactive graphic below gives insight into how the typical UK household spends (taken from this ONS report).
Trends from the data
A wealthier decile has more people per household.
Wealth increases steadily between the 2nd and 8th deciles, and sharply at both ends.
Overall spending trends
Spending in most product areas correlates with increasing disposable income on both a per person and per capita level.
Interesting specific spending trends
Food Poultry (strongly) and beef (weakly) correlate with increasing wealth, pork and lamb are flat across groups, and bacon and ham have a weak negative correlation.
Housing Poorer households spend proportionally much more on housing, making up 19.1 % of spending for the lower half of households, vs 11.1 % for the upper (I guess this is because of renting vs owning). This is after accounting for housing benefits to the lowest deciles.
Transport Transport spending is correlated with income, with a sharp increase in the top decile due to the purchase of new (presumably luxury) cars.
Clothes In the bottom three deciles women spend 2.5x more than than men on clothes, whereas that ratio is only 1.3x for the top decile. Only the top few deciles use drycleaning services.
Alcohol and Tobacco Spending on alcoholic drinks was correlated with income, but the trend was dominated by wine, while beer and spirits were fairly independent across the groups. Lower income deciles spent more per person on tobacco and other narcotics.
Health and Education Education (school fees) and sports subscriptions (gyms) correlated strongly with income.
Entertainment There is a hump like feature in the audio-visual equipment categories in the 6th and 7th deciles. Spending on hotels appears to have an exponential relationship with increasing disposable income.
Useful definitions from the ONS:
What is disposable income?
Disposable income is arguably the most widely used household income measure. Disposable income is the amount of money that households have available for spending and saving after direct taxes (such as Income Tax, National Insurance and Council Tax) have been accounted for. It includes earnings from employment, private pensions and investments as well as cash benefits provided by the state.
The five stages are:
1. Household members begin with income from employment, private pensions, investments and other non-government sources; this is referred to as “original income”
2. Households then receive income from cash benefits. The sum of cash benefits and original income is referred to as “gross income”.
3. Households then pay direct taxes. Direct taxes, when subtracted from gross income is referred to as “disposable income”.
4. Indirect taxes are then paid via expenditure. Disposable income minus indirect taxes is referred to as “post-tax income”.
5. Households finally receive a benefit from services (benefits in kind). Benefits in kind plus post-tax income is referred to as “final income”.
Note that at no stage are deductions made for housing costs.
Amusing group names:
While looking at consumer spending in the UK, I found the following categories that the ONS uses to divide UK residents. Some of them were incredulous to the point of being amusing.
Categories: Rural residents, Cosmopolitans, Ethnicity central, Multicultural metropolitans, Urbanites, Suburbanites, Constrained city dwellers, Hard-pressed living
Sub-categories: Farming Communities, Rural Tenants, Ageing Rural Dwellers, Students Around Campus, Inner-City Students, Comfortable Cosmopolitans, Aspiring and Affluent, Ethnic Family Life, Endeavouring Ethnic Mix, Ethnic Dynamics, Aspirational Techies, Rented Family Living, Challenged Asian Terraces, Asian Traits, Urban Professionals and Families, Ageing Urban Living, Suburban Achievers, Semi-Detached Suburbia, Challenged Diversity, Constrained Flat Dwellers, White Communities, Ageing City Dwellers, Industrious Communities, Challenged Terraced Workers, Hard-Pressed Ageing Workers, Migration and Churn.
Personal conflict: running tech
I like running, and improving my fitness more generally, I suppose because it helps me to self actualise. One of my personal weaknesses in fighting back against the commercial marketing machine has been in running tech. As such, I found this video from the New York Times both entertaining and helpful in realising the main thing I need to run faster is not a piece of equipment, but to simply run more and faster.
December blogging reflection
Lately I’ve been posting each week on Sunday come what may. There’s a pretty wide variance in how much time goes into each post, which is not always related to the quality of each post. Some topics I have a better understanding of before I start to write. Some observations are not insightful. Some posts go out unfinished.
Ideas vary in quality. Some ideas were probably not worth writing about at all, while others are so huge they could easily fill hundreds of pages. Not every idea is a good idea, and even a good idea poorly executed is not a good result.
Some topics deserve to be revisited, edited, improved, expanded etc. But writing in this weekly format is useful. Sometimes quantity results in quality. If I maintained a high expectation for each blog post I would write less, and my writing would not improve. Moreover in trying to write each week I am motivating myself to learn. I do hope to better organise myself in the next block of blogging (i.e. next year’s posts) to segregate space for tackling bigger topics less frequently, with a less structured more regular section.
As I was writing this post I received Peter Attia’s weekly email, describing his struggles with writing. It was extremely motivating to read words that felt so familiar they could have been my own. I would not wish insecurities on anyone, but it is deeply reassuring to be reminded those feelings are normal.
While on the topic of other writers; blogs I’d like to share: Econometrics By Simulation: interesting applications of statistical software. Beau Miles: Came across some of his films, the first content in a while to make me really miss Australia. Describes himself as “Award winning filmmaker, poly-jobist, speaker, writer, odd.”
Whales’ heart beats
A wonderful aspect of having scientists as friends is that they share exciting science with you that you would otherwise miss. One example is this paper about how the heart rate of blue whales changes as they dive for food. Their enormous hearts beat as slowly as two times per minute and as quickly as 37, which is about as fast as is physically possible. It also contains this informative figure, which I feel tells the story clearly and succinctly.