2018 Week 27: Mileage and Musings

Fitness:
At the end of this September I plan on running the Blenheim and Oxford half marathons, ideally setting a personal best. Last year I ran the Blenheim Palace race in 1:47:13, and ambitiously I would like to do better than 1:30:00. I suspect this is too large an improvement to expect even with 3 months to train, but it provides a target to work towards an incentive to train harder.

Oxford has some beautiful places to run. Below are some pictures from routes around Christ Church Meadow, Port Meadow, and Oxford Parkway.

Small Holidays:
This weekend I visited Oxford’s Arboretum, and Blenheim Palace. It was lovely to enjoy the summer sunshine. With so much interesting content so easily accessible online and on paper, it can be difficult to prioritise taking time to just experience the outside world. Emotionally, it felt very valuable to be out somewhere a little different, to take a small holiday. Some photos from the weekend:

 

Car Ownership:
It has now been two out of a relatively few visits to the palace that have included a car show, and this time it was the Pre ’50 American Auto Club Rally of the Giants. It is remarkable the strength of the relationship people form with their cars, and this is particularly noticeable in the context of a community that defines themselves by the restoration and care of classic machines. The reasons that come to mind for this strength are: cars are one of the largest purchases commonly made, cars provide freedom (of movement) to a unique extent, and for many commuters cars are a often occupied second home. I enjoy the practicalities and aesthetics of cars (and motorcycles, and bicycles), but for something so common, the economics don’t seem to add up. Intuitively, for such an expensive piece of infrastructure, the majority of (privately owned) vehicles seem to spend a rather minimal amount of time being used. While I (like many) enjoy driving, it would seem the more hours I spend driving my car, the fewer hours I would have to focus on other tasks, and as such relocating or finding alternative transport (even if slower) would net gain me more hours of useful time. I suppose it would be interesting to quantify this from the perspective of homo economicus, but a quick search of the literature give me only “semi-structured interviews with 19 regular private car commuters” and “discrete choice models of the household’s decision to own zero, one, two or three or more vehicles“, i.e. interesting descriptions of individual and collective behaviour with regard to owing cars, but not a judgement on if it makes sense.Quotes

Some interesting comments include “Drivers frequently fail to appreciate the full costs of their travel and equate running costs with fuel costs only” and “Thus the autonomy and empowerment drivers feel can benefit health and wellbeing and access to a car is associated with superior physical health, less depression and lower mortality rates”.

I suppose, ultimately, it would require pricing relatively difficult concepts such as the flexibility of point to point transport to an individual, or the sense of safety it provides, or the value in transporting dependants.

Writing from the office.

2018 Week 26: Going beyond your ashtray

The short version:
I am too concerned with being seen as intelligent. I am actively choosing to care less about that. I’m back to blogging. Life is good.

The long version:

What do you really want?
Recently I was a visited by a former supervisor who was effective in calling me out on my self delusions. I worry too much about being seen as clever. I’m aware that this has caused me problems in the past, but in the present I am swayed by the short term pleasure of validation and sense of security I gain from feeling I’ve convinced others of my cleverness. Ultimately this is a futile and deeply wasteful aim. My supervisor reminded me, somewhat in the style of Yoda’s “Do or do not, there is no try”, that unless I commit to the choice to do something differently, I won’t change. I need to choose to stop caring if people think I’m clever or not. This is difficult for several reasons, 1. it is a deeply ingrained habit, 2. being seen to be clever seems to be important for being valued by an organisation, 3. it is part of my identity. I could replace it with an alternative value, being diligent, or capable. Preferably I would replace the concern with others opinion entirely with a drive towards a greater good, hence the question posed above. As far as I have been able to see through reflection, I am where I am today because of curiosity, competitiveness, and the need to be seen by others as clever. Removing the last of those leaves a gap that needs to be filled, and until a more specific goal materialises, I will roughly pencil in “make a good and meaningful contribution to the world”.

The eponymous ashtray refers to one sitting between my supervisor and I as we shared a dinner at the Turf Tavern, which was used as a metaphor for one’s comfort zone. Internally I bristled a little at the idea that I was uncomfortable going outside my “ash tray”; I feel my risk appetite is fairly high, and that I’m very willing to try new things. He was right though: I may be willing to travel to new places, or to try new foods, to meet new people, but having done those things before they were now within my ash tray. But ceasing my attempts to be seen a certain way was outside. He reminded me that you can always come back to your ash tray, and that is true too, making this choice now does not mean, if it turns out to have been the wrong one, I can never come back. The symbolism had the added benefit of making one’s comfort zone seem like an unhealthy and unpleasant place to stay.

It is difficult to fight our nature. We are social creatures, and to be ostracised by your community is a terrible, and much feared, fate. But vanity and narcissism, whether aesthetic or intellectual, are not the right paths to being included in a community. Respect and empathy are much more valuable both to oneself but also to the community as a whole. To this end, concerning yourself with projecting or accentuating certain aspects of yourself is actually counter-productive: its subtle dishonesty belies a lack of respect for one’s peers. Ultimately, as with most things, it is much easier to say these things than put them into practice.

Blogging:
This post comes approximately halfway through the year, and leaves a gap of approximately 18 weeks. It has been slightly painful to return to, or even think about, that delay as it has grown. As discussed above, I have a problem with being overly concerned about how people see me, and I would like to be seen as punctual, disciplined, consistent, and at the very least capable of maintaining a weekly blog. Unfortunately that is clearly not the case here, but at a certain point I ought to have given up on posting weekly in favour of the main aim of posting at all, which I enjoy. Further complicating this is that a blog is public one way communication; a tool of projecting (presumably desirable) aspects of oneself.

Structurally, I don’t want to let go of the weekly update structure, although it would put less pressure on weeks where time is in short supply. I’m going to experiment a little with creating more categories.

Music:

I’m writing from a train between Birmingham and Oxford. I’m very fortunate to have a sister early in her career as a musician, as it compels me to attend concerts I would otherwise have likely ignored. (You can hear her, and the rest of the orchestra, here.) I do enjoy them, and am learning that even though there is complexity to the pieces (and art more generally), my enjoyment of them need not be complex. I regret I don’t prioritise being better educated in music, but I believe that we ought not let the inability to engage in something fully prevent us from engaging at all, most obviously because we would not otherwise be able to try anything new!

Life Updates:

Science:
I’m approaching the end of the first 6 months with ONI, and it has been an exciting, exhilarating, and exhausting experience. I am very lucky to be surrounded by interesting, intelligent, and most of all inspiring colleagues. Each day I feel I am growing both professionally and personally, and as such I suspect I am currently in the best place I could possibly be.

Health and Fitness:
Planning to run the Blenheim Palace and Oxford half marathons later this year, with a stretch goal time of under 90 minutes and a likely goal time of under 100 minutes. If I am able to dedicate myself to a training program 90 minutes might be achievable, but with running not being my highest priority the required training may be sacrificed in favour of professional and social commitments.

A happy thought about time:
I am coming to a happy place on the fact that I will always have more things I’d like to do in any given block of time than I can. I should not look sadly on all the things I let go or miss out on, but instead treasure the things I choose to do. This should help avoid escapist behaviours and that waste these precious moments.

2018 Week 8: Science Blogging

Week in Summary
I was sick this week, the international presence in Oxford is wonderful for diversity of both ideas and rhinoviruses. I continue to take (Latin) dance classes, at the novice level it still feels (and no doubt looks) a little silly, but there is fun to be had in silliness.  On Saturday I saw the Oxford Imps perform Improvised Cabaret at Modern Art Oxford. It was also a little silly, and it was certainly fun in its silliness. Life can sometimes be a little too serious, particularly in rigorous research, and they say laughter is good for the soul. On Sunday over brunch I learnt about container ships and efforts to commodify them.

Science Blogging
Further inspiration to keep on blogging came recently from Nature, and highlighted a couple of great blogs: DoctorAl (a biologist at Wilfrid Laurier University) and Scientist Sees Squirrel (an ecologist at University of New Brunswick). Another scientist to cross my news feed is the incredibly inspirational  Dr Emma Pooley.

Reading List
One of my goals for 2018 is to read 24 books. At that rate I ought to have finished four by now, however I have yet to finish even one. Instead I’ve been consuming: Instant MessagesReddit, Forums, Academic PapersWikipedia, The Economist, and occasionally The New York Times (thanks to a free subscription courtesy of the google local guides program).

Currently the books on my desk are:

  • Clark, D. (2016). Alibaba: the house that Jack Ma built. HarperCollins.
  • Sasaki, F. (2015)  Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism Penguin
  • Thiel, P. A. & Masters, B. (2014). Zero to one: notes on startups, or how to build the future. Crown Pub.
  • Vance, A. (2017). Elon Musk. Editions Eyrolles.
  • Stone, B. (2013). The everything store: Jeff Bezos and the age of Amazon. Random House.
Delays
This post comes several weeks late. I was a little ill the actual week of this blog, and predominantly work has cascaded into time that I would otherwise allocate to writing. As such it comprises ideas that came together in Week 8 of 2018, but actually was published on Monday of Week 12 (blog catch up week).

 

Writing from the office.

2018 Week 7: Photography

Spring Festival/Chinese New Year
新年快乐! Friday was Chinese New Year, and in Chinese tradition I ate lots of food and called my mum.

Photography
This week’s theme is photos. Taking photos is fun, and more prevalent than ever. In 2003, selfie was name by Oxford Dictionaries as word of the year. In 2011 a monkey took a selfie and in 2017 he settled a lawsuit over its copyright. Along the way the annual global production of cameras exploded from 60 million units to over 1.5 billion, driven by the rapid adoption of smartphones.

Feelings
I have a mixed relationship with photography. On the one hand, I’ve cringed at concerts watching people stare at the performance through camcorder viewfinders, and now smartphone screens. I feel the experiential hoarding can obscure the experience itself, particularly when time is taken to get a technically impressive recording. On the other hand, I enjoy reliving memories through my photos, and a take pride in getting an image I like, such as the one of Sydney Harbour from the home page. The compromise I’ve reached is to allocate specific instances or events where I will attempt to take good photos, as primary to the experience, and otherwise leave the tripod at home and the smartphone in my pocket.

Equipment
I’ve been lucky to have had Canon loan me an 80D , which set the bar for photography tech very high. A DSLR gives plenty of options to tweak, along with clarity and resolution, but they are bulky and expensive. Currently the only dedicated camera I have is a Garmin VIRB X. Recently I’ve upgraded my phone from a Nexus 5 (2013) to a Pixel 2 (2017), and so far I’ve loved the photos it takes.

Canon80D taken with my main camera for many years, the Nexus 5 (2013)

Canon EOS 80D taken with my main camera for years, the Nexus 5 (2013)

Pixel 2 vs Sony RX100 Mk2
In 2013 MKBHD called the RX100 “The best pocket camera ever made“.  I’m lucky to have a friend here who has one. This weekend we walked around Port Meadow on a foggy morning. While the photos themselves weren’t particularly interesting, it was a great opportunity to see how much software processing on the Pixel 2 is able to overcome the hardware deficit vs. the RX100. The phone really falls down when it comes to zoom, and a fairer comparison for point and shoots might be to pair it up against the latest RX100 Mk V, but it is amazing what is possible with a lens not much larger than a shirt button.

Phone vs Point and Shoot comparison: Pixel 2 Photos on the left, RX100 Mk 2 on the right.

 

Tate Modern
Last weekend I visited the Tate Modern in London. Two sets of photographs really stood out. First, the recording of Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0, was a confronting combination of vulnerability, objectification, and voyeuristic grotesqueness. Second, Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980-1981, as a sheer feat of dedication; in order to complete it Hsieh would have been able to sleep no more than an hour, and travel no further than half that, for the entire year. Also, somehow, in those near identical photographs, a quiet reminder that each of us has precious little time.

Ashmolean
This weekend I visited the Ashmolean in Oxford. In one of the top floor galleries, is High Street, Oxford (1810). While the painting is captivating; it is humbling to think that the street I walk nearly every day has been walked by so many before me, my thoughts drifted to its google maps street view partner. The idea that gradually the whole world is being preserved in the same detail as an acclaimed landscape is awesome (in the formal sense).

Botanical Gardens
Finally I want to share some photos of flowers. I visited the Oxford Botanic Gardens again, this time with a colleague who was also in need of some humidity. The bright colours and proximity to the subject really take advantage of what the Pixel 2 software can do. (The blue flowers link to a higher resolution version if you want to check out the detail and the red one to my Instagram).

Delays
This post comes a week late. Small technical issues (e.g. upload limits) and legal precautions (checking copyright on posting photos of artworks) make it easy to lose focus. I’ve been reminded that ultimately I write this blog for myself, so if the application of arbitrary pressure (being a week late) can force me to overcome these hurdles (at the cost of dropping some content I would have liked to include), it suggests my initial expectations are too high, or too inflexible, to be sustainable.

Writing from a bus.

2018 Week 6: Overdue

I’ve broken a relatively short streak of regular Sunday blog posts. A (self imposed) stressful week at work and a (wonderfully) socially packed weekend left little time for personal, let alone public, reflection. Nevertheless regular writing is a habit I am trying to cultivate, hence the following:

Asking for help
The main lesson from work this past week is to ask for help. When you find you need it, delaying for fear of “looking incompetent” is foolish. Worst case you need to solve it by yourself any way, likely case you at least notify others that there may be an issue, and best case you save a lot of time and learn something in the process. The perceived hit to the ego and reputation is much smaller than the actual cost, which is likely to be paid anyway if the problem is one where you are really stuck.

Hamilton and Headphones
I was incredibly fortunate to see the the musical Hamilton in London this weekend. I had seen Lin-Manuel Miranda perform at the white house poetry jam via YouTube, and had enjoyed sharing the hip-hop meets history video with friends as an example of an unexpected combination (often alongside Beat-boxing video-game themed flute). A frightening first impression had me wishing my life, like Hamilton’s, depended on my work such that I’d be able to pursue it with more energy, but eventually it was pointed out to me that this would not be a healthy incentive. The take home messages for me are to be cautious about pride standing in the way of reason, and to consider where to draw the line on ambition. Also, experiencing narratives is valuable, as is writing more.  The next day, exploring the lyrical complexity of the Broadway recording, it struck me how incredible the advancements in technology are that make live performance the rarity rather than the mainstay of modern music. Particularly in combination with mobile internet and streaming services, that so much content was so readily accessible to me, where once no monarch let alone man would have such a repertoire at their beck and call.

Gardens and Games
The featured image for this week comes from the Oxford Botanical Garden greenhouses. Coming from a warm country, it was comforting to be amongst heat, humidity, and horticulture. I also enjoyed playing Avalon and Tsuro for the first time, Avalon reminded me a lot of Mafia and Tsuro is a more confrontational form of Snakes and Ladders.

Writing from the office

2018 Week 5: Trolley Problems

There isn’t a unifying theme this week, just a mixture of things I’ve been thinking about.

Trolley Problems
Last night I attended a Raclette party and over deliciously melted cheese enjoyed conversing with American, British, Chinese, and Swiss friends. For most of the world, the prevalence of guns in the United States of America is frighteningly alien, and I recommended an episode of the podcast More Perfect about the history of the  Second Amendment which I found fascinating. Following speculation about situations where someone might use a gun, the discussion became a more abstract consideration of the trolley problem (there is also a relevant Facebook meme page).  I find it interesting that most people adopt the utilitarian perspective in the more foreign situation of pulling a lever to move a trolley, but if you reframe the decision where the actor is a doctor, the 5 are suffering failures of 5 different organs, and the 1 is an unknown backpacker come in for a check up, people find it intuitively more difficult to take the life of the stranger in the more familiar context. Perhaps this is an intuition about the risk of organ transplants making the lives of the ill less valuable than the life of this healthy traveller, or perhaps it is something about breaking the trust that the traveller imbues in the doctor. Clearly the characters tied to the tracks have no such relationship with the lever operator. One way in which this discussion is particularly timely is in considering self driving cars, who will need these decisions programmed into their code ahead of time. This MIT app lets you make judgements of such moral dilemmas, then gives you some feedback on your preferences, and you can even invent your own (the associated paper is here).

British Library
This week I visited the British Library. Each time I go I am struck by the scale of legal deposit. The system guarantees the British Library will hold a copy of every book (and some other text types) published in the United Kingdom, which some quick googling suggests is around 500 books a day, every day of the year. It can be confronting, particularly when I feel relatively poorly read, that such an unceasing torrent of new material is being created daily. Another perspective is several hundred hours of Youtube video are added every minute. In a world where there is so much information, it is a good reminder to treasure each unit of attention one has, and to invest it wisely. I hope, dear reader, you feel this is worth your time.

Motivation and Mental Health
This week I felt the first few cracks of trying to squeeze as many productive hours into a week as possible. On reflecting, I am reminded that positive feedback is important, and low motivation can be the result of too much focus on the negative. Setting up for “easy wins”, where you are able to make progress without much difficulty or excitement, can help build momentum to tackle more difficult tasks. I also need to improve sleep hygiene, checking the bright light of a smartphone in the middle of the night is not aiding rest and recovery.

Writing from the Radcliffe Camera

2018 Week 4: Discretionary Hours

This week I have been thinking a lot about time. In planning life, time and money are the two resources that are most familiar and quantifiable. For a desired activity, the decision to pursue it requires that I can I afford its cost in time and money. I specify “quantifiable” since there are other costs to an activity: focus, energy, health, good-will. Time and money are unique in that they have clear units, and time particularly unique in that everyone gets the same amount allocated to them (life expectancy aside).
So broadly, the two sides of the time question are 1. (macro) How do I best allocate my time?  and 2. (micro) How do I use that time most effectively within those tasks.

Part 1 (macro): How do I allocate my time?
As a starting point consider how most people spend their time. This New York Times infographic gives some insight.

How much can you get done in a day?
First lets deal with quantity, rather than quality. The obvious upper bound is 24 hours per day, but that is just as obviously unsustainable.

I share a fond memory with a close friend of laughing uncontrollably as we assigned time estimates for our commitments into a spreadsheet, and observed the total hours per day grow more and more absurdly beyond 24 (the punchline was the necessity of accounting for spreadsheeting within the spreadsheet) (more spreadsheet jokes here).

Sleep is one limitation: the record for going without any sleep at all is 11 days and resulted in memory lapses, paranoia, and eventually “He could no longer distinguish the difference between reality and nightmare”. A man in Hunan China died after watching an 11 day soccer marathon, and Moritz Erhardt’s death on the “magic roundabout” of investment banking internships prompted Goldman Sachs to restrict intern workday hours to a mere 17. This study in the aptly named journal “Pain” observed 40 people who were assigned to sleep for either 4 hours or 8 hours over a 16 day period. Figure 3. in that study summarises the results nicely: those on less sleep became less sociable, more tired, more aggressive, and experienced more physical pain. Personal experiences:
I tried the consecutive all nighter approach as a procrastinator in high-school, and though I enjoyed the extra hours, the costs of diminished mental performance, forgetfulness and increased susceptibility to physical illnesses were not worth it. Interestingly, I did experience the “hallucinations” as slipping in and out of dreams while awake, and particularly a sense of not remembering how I had gotten where I was or why I was there.

Eating (and drinking) is more life-critical than sleeping, but (usually) takes up much less time. Eating also makes us sleepy, not because of a change in blood flow but possibly because of glucose inhibition of orexin neurons. Importantly, like sleep, shaving time here is unwise: eating too quickly is associated with obesity but also eating too quickly, even not to being full, is harmful. I tend to eat too quickly, but that aside there is also shopping, preparing, cooking, and cleaning to account for around eating.

Commuting is another issue. Recently I’ve been weighing cycling, busses, and buying a motorcycle or car. Driving (an extremely popular option) seems to be a clear loser: it’s the most expensive, most affected by traffic, and has poor opportunities to multi-tasking (cycling is exercise). A motorcycle would be the fastest by far, but comes with safety risks. Cycling is the cheapest and creates an opportunity to get daily exercise, but isn’t particularly safe or weather proof. Busses are the slowest, but are the safest and have the best capacity to indulge in entertainment, study, or keeping in touch with friends.

Personal Care is the final “necessity”, taking showers, doing laundry, brushing and flossing teeth, excreting waste, and nursing inevitable injuries takes a few minutes per day. Interestingly the American Time Use Survey results also includes in the “Personal Care” category “an average of 54 seconds spent on ‘personal or private activities,’ like having sex”, or a little under 5 and a half hours a year. Hopefully that is under-reporting due to social stimga.

I’ve found that on a week day, taking (roughly) 8 hours to sleep, 2 hours to commute, 2 hours to acquire, prepare, and eat food, and 1 hour to clean my space and myself, leaves 11 hours to get work done, which is approximately how my days play out. This leads to the observation that gives this post its title: although moving from an 8 hour day to an 11 hour day is only a 3 hour increase, or 12.5% of a working day, taking sleep, transport, the assumed 8 hours of work as fixed, it becomes a 50% loss of the remaining 6 hours into which household tasks (like cooking and cleaning) as well as socialising, recreation, reflection, and hobbies also fall. Although we all have 24 hours a day, the “discretionary” hours matter a lot more in budgeting, just as discretionary income gives a better idea if one can afford a luxury.

I really enjoy my job, and want to maximise the time I invest in it to be as successful as possible. To be able to do other things I enjoy, as well as things I need to do to perform like sleep, I need to be careful about budgeting sustainably. Critical to this is making sure that an hour at work is productive, and not performative, which leads nicely onto Part 2.

(I have a suspicion that in places like law firms and investment banks where it can be difficult to assess output, a driver behind the 24 hour internships (where performance must diminish with sleep deprivation) is that “hours in the office” is an easy quantifiable metric to compete on and thus signal dedication to the company.)

Part 2 (micro): How do I make my time more efficient and productive?

Specifically, how to be more efficient, more productive, and make better use of the limited resource that is time. It is critical that we prioritise efficiency over expenditure. It would be pointless to work 20 hour days and get nothing done.

This weekend I worked through an online course on increasing productivity. Video can be more effective than text at presenting information (everyframeapainting is a great example) but often, as was the case in this course, it is not. Even played at double speed, a couple minute “lecture” on the time you’d save by playing video lectures at double speed is inefficient vs losing the video format all together. It did however include a number of tips that, though well known, are potentially very useful.

  1. “Measure twice, cut once” (effective) preparation saves time
  2. Create useful objectives, e.g. by using SMART criteria
  3. For a complex task, consider the inter-dependencies of the components
  4. Work tends to expand to fill the time allocated
  5. 80/20: Much of the benefit can come from little of the work
  6. Multitasking that switches “brain states”  costs focus which costs time (if a facebook popup or an email grabs you for only a few seconds, it can take much longer to get back into the focused state you were in)
  7. Hence it is more efficient to batch similar tasks together (go to the bathroom and pick up the printing at the same time)
  8. Use good multi-tasking (make phone calls on your commute, socialise while exercising)
  9. Plan for breaks (part of setting realistic goals)
  10. Seek Flow
  11. Automate repetitive tasks (e.g. use hotkeys and scripts)
  12. Outsource things that you’re not efficient at
  13. Communicate honestly and specifically
  14. And, I would add to the course, ask for help before you need help.

The other parts
All of that doesn’t consider motivation, drive, and energy. We all have guilty pleasures, but slipping into a Youtube/Netflix binge or being sucked into a social media feed can consume a big chunk of precious time (50 minutes per day, according to facebook).  Every minute does count, but making it feel that way is much harder than counting where they go.

Writing from the Radcliffe Camera

2018 Week 3: What is nano

Career
I’ve answered the “So what do you do?” question a couple times this week, and the answer I’ve been giving has been “I do research for a start-up that makes microscopes”. More specifically, they are super-resolution microscopes, the development of which won Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell, and William E. Moerner the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. If you’re feeling confident about science their lecture  is a good place to gain an understanding, and if not perhaps the next few paragraphs will help out.

Nano
There is a joke amongst academics that the difference between micro and nano is more funding. The joke plays on the prefixes we use to describe units being somewhat arbitrary. We know we could just as easily refer to 100 nm as 0.1 μm, but they don’t. If you didn’t feel part of the “we”, let me try and include you:
Intuition of scale is limited to what we experience. We can demonstrate this with a thought experiment. Imagine an object (I’ll pick apples) and it is easy to visualise the difference between one, two, and ten. Similarly slicing the imaginary apple we see that a whole, half, and tenth are increasingly smaller portions. Our imagination starts to struggle as we keep adding 0s (changing the order of magnitude) to the quantity. You might picture 100 apples as a rather large pile, but not be quite so sure what 1000 or 10,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000 apples would look like, beyond “lots”. Similarly it becomes harder to imagine how small 0.01 or 0.001 or 0.0001 of an apple is, beyond “a speck”. Unless you are really familiar with large or small quantities of apples, your intuition, like mine, probably goes from about 1/100 (a tiny bit of apple) to 1,000 (a rather large amount of apples), or 5 orders of magnitude. We could express this with the typical metric prefixes by saying 1 centiapple to 1 kiloapple.
Generally we do better with length: a human hair has a width of about 100 micrometres (sometimes called microns, the same micro that gives us microscopes), which is 0.000100 metres. The height of the world’s tallest building (the Burj Khalifa) is 830 metres, and we can probably push a little further: looking from the top of it the furthest we could see would be about 100,000 metres away. This translates into an intuition spanning 9 orders of magnitude, which is convenient as the prefix “nano” expresses being 9 orders of magnitude smaller than the unit length. In this example the number of hairs you could fit side-by-side along 100 km is the number of nanometres in one metre. This number is more commonly called a billion, which Neil deGrasse Tyson plays with in this video. So “nano” is just a shorthand used to quickly get us down to a very small scale. You can explore that more in these two visualisations (I highly recommend you do).
The reason that nano is so exciting is that two important processes happen on that scale, and both allow you to be reading this blog. The first is that the fundamental building block of the computer, the transistor, can be fabricated on the nanometre scale. The second is the fundamental building block of you, cells and their constituent proteins and DNA, exist on the nanometer scale. We typically measure the width of individual atoms in the unit “ångströms”, which is 0.1 nanometers, and so an understanding at the nanoscale is an understanding of physical space at the smallest scale that “structure” (as we typically mean it) make sense. Smaller than the nanometer, we enter the entirely unintutive world of quantum. So, a complete mastery over the nano-scale would translate into a mastery over biology and materials science, going well beyond what current science fiction and futurism could suggest. To work at that scale requires a way to see what is going on, and super-resolution microscopy is one such way of looking.

Lessons from Failing: Potential vs Effort
Last week I wrote a little about failing. It would be painful and unhelpful to revisit my failures every week, but I do hope sharing might prevent someone repeating the mistakes. At a minimum, by consolidating my thoughts publicly I prevent my tendency to avoid asking for help.
Working through my own failing, Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit”  was particularly helpful. A major theme is that our culture celebrates talent instead of the hard work that goes into achievement, when the effort is more significant. I suspect I was particularly vulnerable to glorifying potential (in my case I called it intelligence) because as a child I was told I was intelligent, and that became core to my identity. In turn I came to believe I shouldn’t need to work hard, because “innate” intelligence should be effortless. In fact if you hear “young Nick works really hard”, you might quietly assume focus is being drawn to effort because of a lack of talent which would be needed to achieve. It is very satisfying to think about all the opportunities talent might bring, but all the opportunities in the world are meaningless if there is no application towards any one of them.
In defeating this belief as a mathematics tutor I used the example of genetic potential for athletic feats. Often you hear children (and adults) proclaim (sadly with pride) that they are “bad at maths”. As if they somehow lack the biological machinery to do sums. The problem is they experience a false comparison, between themselves and those who have been consistently applying effort over time. It is easy to assume talent is what explains achievement when the effort is so rarely public and further hidden by being spread little by little over a long time. Compare the more intuitive idea that an obese person is not necessarily “bad at running”, but severely under-trained. They may have the genetics to set a world record, but if they turn up to the track as they are the results would suggest they are incapable of performing. Moreover if they try and perform at the level of those who turn up week in, week out, it will be a physically painful and socially humiliating experience. It is only through consistent training, gradually moving through incremental progress, that we can see underlying talent. More than that, outside of the most competitive arenas it is training rather than genetic talent that makes all the difference to performance. I feel it is also worth noting here, though it doesn’t fit quite so well, that it is setting out to make small amounts of progress and achieving it that snowballs into love of an activity. If the bar is set unattainably high, the positive reinforcement, and pleasure, from succeeding does not occur and motivation eventually collapses.
In short, in a culture where we celebrate the smartest, the fastest, or your other superlative of choice, it is important to realise that actual success in life is not about having the most potential, but it is about what you do with however much you have.

Structure
It was pointed out that this blog lacks structure and/or cohesion. At the moment the main “goal” is to create content, largely to refine my own thinking and share it with friends, family, and colleagues. To that end the unifying theme has been merely “what have I been thinking about this week”. Eventually a more meaningful structure may evolve, or I may consolidate topics spread over several weeks into a more structured format or section, but for now take it as the digital equivalent to sitting down with me over a beverage of choice and having a chat.

Writing from the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford

2018 Week 2: What is your biggest failure?

Career
This was my first week at ONI and it was great. The team is brilliant, and represents almost as many countries as it has people. In my previous job, as in this one, a personal blog is not the place to discuss the specifics of work (that might be commercially sensitive), but it is an exciting and satisfying environment to be in.

Languages
I’m on a 14 day streak for Chinese on duolingo. I first heard about duolingo from the TED talk of Luis von Ahn, which is probably a little dated, but certainly interesting from a “history of crowd sourcing” perspective. Notably it seems to have grown to be much more about learning languages than translating the entire internet, which is not to say crowd-sourcing has been unsuccessful (see Niantic and PokemonGO). Freakonomics did a podcast about how (financially) valuable it is to learn a second language,  talking with Albert Saiz who wrote a paper. In short, it’s not particularly valuable, unless the second language you’re learning is English.

Reading
Before we get serious I’ve discovered a guy here called Chris McIntyre writes a weekly email called “Interesting Things I Come Across” and it lives up to its name.

Failing
There are some questions that seem to come up in interviews no matter the position or experience. Having a concise answer to “Tell us about yourself” or “why do want the position”.  One I found difficult is “What is your biggest failure”, and in answering it over and over I’ve started to make sense of it. My failure is quite literal. I failed a number of subjects during my studies at University. Specifically 8 discontinues, 6 absent fails, and 3 fails, from 2014 to 2016. It still stings to look that up, and look at a rather large hole in an otherwise reasonably good transcript. I’m still afraid to admit it.

For most of my life I held the foolish belief that it was impossible for me to burn out. I thought that I was intelligent, but lazy. I relied on the “Panic Monster” to push through days without sleep so I could start a term’s project a couple days before the deadline. I remember explaining the reason I had so overwhelmingly over-committed myself was that “I could never have the discipline to do things gradually over time, but I always managed to scrape through, so the best way to be efficient  was to do lots and lots of things”. These beliefs were so core to how I saw myself that eventually when I did burn out, it was took me 3 years to finally accept and change these unhealthy views.

Thankfully I’ve since learned that I, like most, do not have an unlimited capacity for pressure. That I do need rest. That being smart is not all that matters. That talent is important, but consistent application of effort over time counts twice as much. Perhaps most important of all, that it is OK to ask for help.

That’s an imperfect summary, but it is certainly a good place to start.

Written (mostly) from the Oxford Hackerspace.

2018 Week 1: Production Scientist to Nano-image-r

It has been an excitingly busy start to the year

Career updates
On Friday I had my last day as a Production Scientist. On Monday I start at Oxford Nanoimaging. I’ve enjoyed my time with Alere Toxicology UK (which became part of Abbott) but I want tougher problems to solve. I was fortunate to have good colleagues; I’m coming to the belief that who you work  with matters more than what work you do, though the two are linked. The next project will be with a company three orders of magnitude smaller (~100,000 to <100), and the work is likely to be much more challenging. That is very exciting, but also a little daunting.

Catching up with old friends
I have been consistently terrible at keeping in touch with friends. This is in part due to a strong proximity bias favouring interacting with people physically closer to me over interactions I might enjoy more. It is also due to setting unrealistic expectations about how those long overdue catch ups ought to go, i.e. that they somehow have to “make up” for the gap, even though it has never been clear how that might occur. The result is procrastination. This week I was successfully prompted by circumstance, and it was lovely. Two great discussions were on how magnets can affect moral judgements and how positive and negative feedback can shape preferences and identities.

New years day
I stood on Lambeth Bridge in London to see the New Year’s Eve fireworks. It was extremely crowded, but jovial. London’s transport system impressed by coping incredibly well with the flood of people leaving central London.

Writing from home.