2020 Week 27: Warning Label

Brief update; I am content. I have been feeling more confident generally about life this week. I am learning to perform my new role, from both success and failure. I am taking my time to appreciate good emotions, and not dwelling on bad ones. Physical training continues to plan. I have enjoyed several good conversations. Having identified my passion for engaging with talented and motivated people, I am fortunate that I get to do that so frequently at ONI.

Choosing a Perspective

Philosophy ought to come with a warning label. Dwelling too deeply into difficult, unanswered, and perhaps impossible questions carries the risk of becoming seriously lost in one’s own mind. A recent conversation ended with the question: If we can change how we feel about our experiences, thereby potentially enjoying any experience, which experiences should we choose (and choose to enjoy)? Intuitively we should choose to be happy and to do good in the world, but how do we pin down what is good in the world aside from what makes us and others happy?

I have been thinking about this David Foster Wallace speech (transcript). it focuses on choosing how you relate to people and describes a routine visit to a supermarket. Wallace asks the audience to consider hidden acts of compassion and kindness behind the people making up the frustrating queues and parking lots and highway traffic. Another, perhaps more simple, choice of perspective is to appreciate the supermarket itself. If the abundance and affordability of vegetables is celebrated, then a squeaky trolley wheel or a long queue pales compared to the miracle that the world has provided you food. For much of human history, much of human labour was spent securing a supply of food. Today for most that supply is trivial, and in my mind, worthy of appreciation.

Yesterday while drafting this I shared a quote from that speech: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” Focusing on the shopping and not the shoppers can bring happiness through attention and awareness and discipline, but it does seem a trivial exercise compared with caring and sacrificing for others.

Vaccine Updates

While the UK is getting closer to normal with the reopening of the central cultural venue, the pub, I suspect until the deployment of a vaccine for COVID-19 social and professional interactions will continue to be shaped by the disease. On Tuesday Chemistry World published this helpful update on the development of a vaccine for COVID-19. On Thursday The Economist declared Oxford the current leader.

Photo from the Week

2020 Week 26: Find what you look for

The first half of 2020 is coming to an end, a time to assess progress on personal goals (or KPIs or OKRs). One personal goal was to write shorter weekly posts in favour of longer irregular posts. The 3 times I’ve succeeded in writing longer posts so far are A note on fear and death under the current pandemic, Lady Astronaut of Mars, and Productivity Update February 2020. I’ve been learning a little about funnels, and think that this might be a useful model for planning such posts in the future.

A side effect of science

As scientific research on SARS-CoV-2 is published, the general public is becoming more aware of preprint servers, redaction, and the messy side of science. I have not kept up with the deluge of publications, but a few friends have been asking for my opinion on some headlines. I shared the following observation:

As universities shut down, scientists saw the opportunity to return to doing research (which they enjoy) by studying SARS-CoV-2 in their field. Hypothetically, a group that studies kidney disease, might look into the effect of COVID-19 on the kidney. It’s improbable that a respiratory disease improves kidney function, so if an effect is observed it is probably detrimental. The likely result will be a publication linking SARS-CoV-2 and kidney deterioration. It may well be the case that common strains of corona-virus or influenza (or any illness) have a similar negative effect on the kidney that, under normal circumstances, would not be of a sufficient magnitude or interest to investigate. In this way, scientific publications and the resulting mainstream media headlines might cause undue alarm simply due to the unusual focus of the entire scientific community on a single disease.

By a similar mechanism to over-policing, intensive research focus can make a disease seem worse than similar, less investigated diseases. Be careful what you look for, you might actually find it.

Quote I’m Pondering

You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.

Marie Curie

As a People Growth Engineer, my personal interest in self improvement is now linked to my professional responsibilities. ONI, through democratising life science research, is building a better world, but for us to achieve this we need to improve as a company, and therefore as individuals. Personal development and self improvement can feel selfish, but along with observing Curie’s duty “to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful”, individual improvements do lead to a better world for all.

Photo of the Week

2020 Week 25: Happily Overwhelmed

How am I doing this week? Overwhelmed, but happy. This is a good place to be, the stimulation is driving growth, but lower priority projects (like blogging) suffer. A few thoughts:

Studying Diagrams

This visualisation tool exploring the relationship between academic papers helps leverage our brains’ adaptations for visual pattern recognition to gain insight into unfamiliar fields of study.

Mindset Adopting

Angela Duckworth’s recent post highlights mastery behaviours and their association to the growth mindset.

Awareness Practising

Sometime I only notice a decision after I’ve made it. This is good if the automatic decision is beneficial (exercising first thing in the morning) but bad if the decision is harmful (procrastination). I am returning to practising mindfulness to gain more awareness of these choices.

Photo from the week

Wild strawberries in the garden.

2020 Week 24: New Normal

Tomorrow face coverings will become mandatory on public transport in England. The world is emerging from the shutdown caused by a pandemic. Harvard experimental scientists are returning to their labs. I feel remarkably unaffected: I commute by bicycle, my work continued through the pandemic, my hobbies occur at home or in nature. I have seen those around me grow more eager to return to normal, but for many that may never happen.

Hesitate less – the lesson I’m trying to implement now

I have not slept. Between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasma or a hideous dream. The genius and the mortal instruments are then in council, and the state of man, like to a little kingdom, suffers then the nature of an insurrection.” (Julius Caesar 2.1.63-71)

I am noting when I hesitate, and attempting to hesitate less. Some decisions are better made after investing time to carefully consider the choice, particularly decisions where the costs are high, but many tasks are made more daunting by postponing them. Fear and doubt build, and the cost to act increases. To get more done, I ought to act with more urgency.

Some things to share:

Books and Blogs
How to choose what to read, or listen to, or discuss? What ideas ought I visit (and subsequently consider, and sometimes write about). It is impossible to read everything. Roughly as many books fit in a shipping container as there are days in 100 years, and content comes in many forms beyond text. In this time of ubiquitous technology and physically distanced communication, each interaction begins with a choice of what content to consume, who to connect with. In a moment I could reach out to someone new, or call a close friend, or read the words of an author long dead and buried. Dwelling too much on that choice might lead to choosing nothing at all (see hesitation above), but making the right choice seems so important.

Too often I choose randomly. Occasionally I come across an abandoned blog, such as “Where’s my backpack?” and I want to study it, fearing the hosting will expire and the content will be lost (though archives of the web exist). On one rare instance I came across a blog and found myself. Part of why I write this blog is to refine and condense my thoughts, but as I approach my 100th post it becomes difficult to recall which topics I have already visited and what I have said about them. Simply to read my own words (of varying quality) now takes significant time. If in this moment your choice was reading my words, thank you, and please share your thoughts with me (my email).

Coffee as a hobby
Manual espresso coffee making process: I don’t use a PID (proportional-integral-derivative) controller, but otherwise my process is pretty similar.

Photos from the Week:

2020 Week 23: Protests, Poisons, and Pasta

Following the Killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, protests against racism have spread across the US and the world, including here in Oxford. The police should not kill people. People should not fear violence or death from the police. Black lives matter. Going beyond these general, and hopefully obvious, statements requires looking into an incredibly complex set of historical, socio-economic, and policy questions. I tried to read and synthesise a meaningful comment this weekend, and was overwhelmed. I fear that the outpouring of emotion in these protests becomes twisted into a force for further political polarisation. In 2014 Police Chief Edward Flynn made comments that have stuck with me since; it is worth remembering that the ugliness of the world is faced and fought daily by good people, and we ought not forget their courage and sacrifice when people who look like them do terrible things.

Chemistry and Cleaning

When people are frightened, and poorly informed, they tend to act against their own interests. The US president speculated at a press conference if something like disinfectant could be used by injection to treat COVID-19. If a student posed this question to me I would attempt to guide them via the Socratic method to the nature of Denaturation. If the leader of the Free World poses it, a non-trivial minority poisons themselves.

Photos from the Week: Pasta

There have been many surprises in 2020; I would not have expected The Economist to print a recipe for making pasta from scratch in response to a global pandemic. Photos from my attempt:

2020 Week 22: Strava and Going to Space

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” – wisdom attributed to hockey player Wayne Gretzky.

Starting a company and succeeding is a difficult shot to make, but success first requires an attempt. Starting a company that sends people into space, or to another planet, is a shot so difficult as to seem impossible. Yet, as I write this, the draft sits alongside a live stream of US astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken flying the Dragon spacecraft from SpaceX and NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Working at a start-up, and having read Ashlee Vance’s biography of Musk, the feat of carrying two people into space is made far more impressive by knowing how close to failure SpaceX has come. I was especially happy to see the first stage land safely on the drone ship; SpaceX’s compilation of failures has consoled me at the lab when work was not going to plan. In this time of global pandemic, there is something captivating and hopeful about developments in space technology. For more blog content from two people who are actually involved in space, I’d suggest checking out Christine and Casey

Strava: Thoughts on Start-ups, Running, Micro-blogging, and Numbers

I use Strava as a training log, social-media, and micro-blog platform.

Strava
Strava is many things. To me, it is first my logbook for exercise and training. It is also a social media channel. I can see the training logs of my friends, colleagues, and a few athletes who inspire me. We share photos, and sometimes brief notes, from sessions. As I train for the Edinburgh marathon, Strava is where I micro-blog about running.

Strava is also a company, and for 180 people in the US and UK, it is where they go to work. Strava is a late stage start-up, and as they recently announced, Strava is currently not profitable. That announcement, alongside changes to features free and paid users have access too, is covered in depth by DCRainmaker, perhaps the definitive fitness-tech blogger.

Startups, expectations, and the internet
People expect stuff online to be free, especially if it was free in the past. Tweets at Strava about the changes show a user base upset by a company moving free features behind a paywall, despite providing most of their service (tracking exercise) for free. Google and Facebook, with users in the billions, use advertising to keep their services free for users, but this creates a gap between the desires of the consumers and the paying customers of the platform. That gap can have significant harms, such as political polarisation and the subsequent shift by major parties to policy extremes (suggested reading: Facebook did an internal study on this and decided not to act on it).

Rather than appeal to advertisers or users to pay, many startups simply subsidise their services with investors’ money in order to grow their total number of users. Uber and Lyft lose money on rides in the hope of gaining a profitable monopoly. When delivery services subsidise the cost of food, it creates interesting arbitrage opportunities.

Returning to “Going to Space” Paypal (alongside fin-tech start ups today established financial firms alike) literally pays users to sign up for a free service, and that strategy led Elon Musk from sleeping in his office with one computer to controlling multi-billion-dollar aerospace and automotive companies (and still sleeping in his office).

Finishing time distribution of marathon races from marastats.com

Numbers
Things we can quantify are motivating. People think a lot about their weight, because it is a number that is perceived as a proxy for health or attractiveness. Marathon finishing times tend to cluster at just under “round number” finishing times as people push to get in below their goal time. Today I planned my run to achieve 2000 m of climbing in May, and would have been upset (or probably gone for an extra run) if I had come in to see only 1998 m. Financial numbers (personal savings, or the valuation of a home, or personal income, or the value of a company) are often felt as proxies for success, or safety.

I’ve recently noticed that if I keep my step count visible on my watch, I am actually motivated to take extra walks, despite regularly exercising beyond the need to walk further in a day. The lesson to me is to be careful about which numbers I make more visible, and therefore tend to optimise for. It’s not just counting the shots you take and the shots you make, it’s also choosing carefully which game to play.

Photos from the Week: Shotover Mornings

2020 Week 19: Wasting Time

In my new role as a People Growth Engineer, I am decoupled from the schedule of experimental science. Any loss of productive time is now on me, and it has been revealing. The single biggest reason I waste time is because I feel negative emotions, and want something to distract from that. The negative emotions I most feel are variations on fear: fear that I am not good enough (insecurities) fear of failure, fear of losing the respect of my peers (embarrassment). It is easy to set aside my emotions briefly, but I also have behaviours that reveal the underlying feelings; being too abrasive in my answers to questions, eating when I am not hungry, looking for validation in my training statistics. In order to truly not waste time, I have to feel confident enough to enjoy what I am doing, but not so confident that I blindly make mistakes. For now, I can focus on the idea that simply by being less afraid, I can waste less time, I can improve, and so I will have less to fear.

The Price of Oil

On 20 April 2020 a futures contract for crude oil traded at -$40.32 a barrel (a negative value). That is not an intuitive event, and some explanation can be found in this article. One note that stood out is that Andy Hall, a “legendary oil trader” says of the oil prices “I do still watch it every day”. It resonates with some of what I have been reading about how necessary obsessive habits are for world-class performance.

Advice

In my feed this week was 68-bits-of-unsolicited-advice from Kevin Kelly on his 68th birthday. They vary from trifling “Don’t trust all-purpose glue” to historic “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” to more profound ideas like “Anything real begins with the fiction of what could be. Imagination is therefore the most potent force in the universe, and a skill you can get better at. It’s the one skill in life that benefits from ignoring what everyone else knows.”. I found it a useful list to consider, and hope that should I see my 68th birthday, I will have useful ideas to share.

Stakhanovite

When the Editor-in-Chief of The Economist described her illustrator as “Stakhanovite”, I learnt a new word for “an exceptionally hard working or productive person”. This BBC article summarises the story of Alexei Stakhanov.

Photo from the Week – Daisies

I’ve been shifting my routine earlier in the day, which is treating me well. Among more significant advantages, a small bonus was discovering that daisies unfurl in the morning to greet the sun, and later learning that they move to track it through the sky.

Daises on the lawn. Daisies exhibit heliotropism – the flowers track the position of the sun throughout the day.

2020 Week 18: Autonomy

This week I have had more autonomy in how I allocate my time at work. While I enjoyed the freedom, it also created expectations to perform. I might aspire to a stoic determination around ideas of “never complain, never give excuses”, but having actual excuses be removed increases the pressure I feel to deliver.

More Thoughts:

Caterpillars in Shotover

On the recommendation of a friend I ran in Shotover Country Park this weekend (see Photos from the Week below). The trails are well kept and soft under foot. There is a good variety of long steady climbs, short punchy climbs, and beautiful flat sections, great for all manner of training. There were also thousands of small (1 cm or so) caterpillars hanging from trees which I was inevitably coated in. Curious, I turned to the scientific literature and found a comprehensive description of this behaviour in the appropriately named journal Animal Behaviour. As it turns out, this is a defence mechanism to avoid predators (stink bugs and wasps). When the caterpillars detect the vibrations their predators make when hunting nearby, they dangle themselves from silk threads to escape being eaten. Interestingly they can differentiate the vibrations of wasps and stink bugs (two predators), and dangle further (30 cm) for wasps than the less adept stink bugs (only 10 cm of dangling). Not only did the study record and artificially replicate the vibrations caused by the predators to confirm this, they also measured that the extra dangling significantly increased survival in response to the wasps, but was not needed for the stink bugs. Science is awesome. Unfortunately for these caterpillars, the extra dangling also made them much more likely to become unwilling passengers on my run. Good pictures of them in this tweet.

Short Observations on Social Pressure

I remember being taught about peer pressure at school. Usually the intention was that if children are aware of what is motivating them to do something the teacher or parent thinks is negative, that they will be less likely to behave in that way. I would like to think that I’ve become more aware since I was a child, and yet peer pressure still nudges me to make bad choices. I was tagged in a run by a friend as part of a “5k for the NHS challenge”. He ran under 20 minutes and, being competitive, I wanted to beat that time. It is something that I feels possible, but would require a more intense change of pace than what seems reasonable given my current training. I really felt pressure, for about 10 days, to go out and try and run a sub 20 5k, which would have been a mistake. With other more significant pressures in my life at the moment, it is interesting to note that such a trivial (and well meaning) nudge to perform can cause such an emotional burden.

Of course the other side of this is that I was motivated to give £5 to the NHS. I have often been cynical about runners raising money for charity: the run seems so unnecessary, even costly, as the event costs could also go to the charitable cause. Fun runs do align with some causes, as exercise reduces susceptibility to cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, but in general it seems contrived to me. I must concede though, that had I not been nudged to donate via Strava, I would not have donated that £5. From this single point of data, it has been effective.

Stuff I’m reading at the moment

Measure What Matters by John Doerr, and Leading by Alex Ferguson and Michael Moritz. I am hoping to get some summarised thoughts out soon.

Photo from the Week

2020 Week 15: Growth amid Crisis

This has been another week of excitement, exhilaration, and exhaustion while working on SARS-CoV-2 projects at ONI. Doing experiments directly related to the pandemic is motivating, and I have noted that I find it easier to work 80-100 hour weeks on this project than 60-70 hours weeks on previous projects. I am very thankful to work with such an inspiring team, as well as to live with supportive friends. In the fourth week of this project, the sustained effort is also made possible by prioritising good diet, regular exercise, and making time for reflection and meditation.

While my week is dominated by the pandemic, I’ll share three moments unrelated to COVID-19. As I was drafting this post, I had a failure of discipline and did not get it out on time. I shared my new job title on LinkedIn. I attended an online interactive performance of The Tempest.

Practise Finishing or Practise Failing

The problem:
This post is a day late. I am disappointed, having managed to deliver on time for the past several weeks, and I felt the resulting introspection was worth sharing. I had enough time to write when I returned home on Sunday evening, but found myself falling into bad habits of procrastination I had hoped were gone. Surprisingly, the lack of resolve came not after a day of exhaustion, but one of relaxation. A day of Easter feasting, an absence of physical training, and only minimal experimental accomplishments left me lacking confidence to express my thoughts. When I could have been writing, I squandered time to distractions like YouTube and chess, sacrificing both a timely post and precious sleep.

A potential solution:
I have noticed a psychological benefit from completing 30-60 minutes of intensive indoor rowing. There are several points (usually at around 7 minutes and 20 minutes in) during these efforts where the temptation is to give up and stop rowing. The spartan rhythm of the exercise, and the absence of visual stimulation, are a backdrop for a battle between falling to weakness of will or building strength of discipline. I have found that days where I see the piece to the end, I am not only rewarded with exercise-induced endorphins and the satisfaction of completing the session, but also I find it is easier to see other tasks in my day to completion. Likewise, if I quit before finishing, it makes failing other tasks more likely. Either practising pushing through pain, or practising giving up when things are hard, reinforces the behaviour. Knowing this, I can focus on succeeding in the present moment, spurred on by recognising it will make the right choice easier in future. This knowledge also feeds into setting appropriate goals: goals which are impossible guarantee falling into a negative feedback loop.

Where else I want to apply this:
There are many brief moments through the day when I could learn a little, or train a little, or communicate better, or help someone. Sometimes I make the right choice, but often I throw that moment away in favour of consuming easy content (e.g. checking sales at an online store) or narcissistically checking for “likes” on social media. I should recognise that by building better habits around these moments, I will find it easier to do the better things. A little discomfort now is worth the behavioural change in the end.

People Growth Engineer

This week I announced my new job title as “People Growth Engineer”. Given the current pandemic related work, I am still applying my skills in the laboratory, but eventually the role will see me focus on the people of ONI rather than wet bench experiments. I am excited at the opportunity to contribute in a new way, driving growth throughout the organisation. I like that the unique title reflects my own passion for a scientific approach to continual learning and personal development. Specifically, the growth I will be engineering for ONI exists in three overlapping areas:
1. Growing the team through identifying the right people to join ONI.
2. Growing existing ONIees (ONIemployees) through individual skill development.
3. Cultivating a culture and fostering a common mindset that allow us to achieve our mission.
More detail to come as I transition into the role.

The Tempest

Over the long weekend I attended Creation Theatre’s performance of The Tempest via Zoom. I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction with the audience and actors, and the fun retelling through modern technology. Initially I was sceptical about setting aside time in this busy period for a play, but the life and laughter I took away from it gave me more joy than I would have expected from any other down-time. The actors involved the audience as Ariel’s spirits, acting out Prospero’s magic. Seeing other audience members on their web-cameras provided a good substitute for in person socialising in this time of social distancing. The humour could be a little cringe worthy at times, but taking Shakespeare playfully feels both authentic to the spirit of the comedy and makes supposedly high culture more accessible.

Photos from the Week

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2020 Week 14: Quieter Paths

Oxford has grown quieter under the current lock-down. Government guidelines still allow for outdoor exercise, and so I have continued to run to and from the lab. The photos from the week capture some beautiful moments from these runs.

Things to share this week

Places you can visit from self isolation
Take a look around the American Museum of Natural history via google street view.
Enjoy the paintings of The National Gallery via google street view.
NASA has virtual tours of the Glenn Research Center and the Langley Research Center.
The Guardian published a guide to virtual tours of landmarks.
There are also entirely virtual worlds with real people to explore in massively multiplayer online games.


Children’s COVID-19 E-book
A friend has written a children’s book on COVID-19, which you can download here. The link is also soliciting donations which will go to support medical charities fighting the pandemic.

Theory of Everything (2014)
I’ve had this on my “to watch” list for a couple years. It focuses on the relationship between cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane through his scientific ascension and physical decline. I enjoyed the theatrical sets; the narrow blackboard-walled room where Penrose introduces black holes, the cold hospital where Hawking is diagnosed with ALS, and the sandstone quads and bridges of Cambridge. The relationship between Stephen and Jane is complicated by two love triangles involving Jonathan (who joins the family as friend and carer) and Elaine (a nurse to Stephen who became his second wife). However, when the real Jane says “There were four of us in our marriage“, rather than four people she is referring to Physics and ALS as the other two partners. I felt that the film prioritised the romantic tension between the characters over the more difficult to portray relationship vs career tension created by extreme devotion to physics, resulting in a compelling but less accurate story. The portrayal of scientists relies on Oxbridge archetypes and falls short of the political nuance of Contact (1997), one of my favourite films. For example, in a letter to Astronomy & Geophysics Adrian L Melott points out the missed opportunity to depict Dennis Sciama as a skilled mentor. You can watch the trailer via YouTube.

Photos from the Week