Currently most of my conversations are about work, exercise, and food. Work is interesting but continues to be mostly confidential. Exercise is going well, and I’m micro-blogging my training in the description of each session on strava. Food continues to be tasty, the importance of which is highlighted in the amusingly titled paper:
Here is an unrefined thought that is not about work, exercise, or food:
A thought experiment about the absence of money
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, governments across the world are taking on debt to keep their economies functioning. I’ve been considering the thought experiment that, perhaps, society could function without money at all. As increasingly individual income and expenditure are merely editing a number in a database, those numbers could remain static and people could simply act as they would in a system governed by money. Obviously the existence of money serves many purposes; a store of value, a medium of exchange, an incentive to not over consume, a signalling mechanism in a variety of contexts, a decision making mechanism via auctions. But the actual changing of numbers in databases (or exchange of paper bills) is not necessary for the actual construction of buildings or transport of commodities. At the outset, if all consumer goods were priced at 0, initially people might over-consume or hoard, but ultimately what would be the purpose? They could not on-sell the goods, not would consuming beyond their need be a positive outcome for themselves. If we assume generally rational and socially minded actions from individuals, would this system be possible? Further, in considering where the system is hardest to implement (how would we ensure just allocation of unique property e.g. housing?) it highlights the different roles money itself plays in organising a society.
It has been a week filled with conversations. I spend a lot of time in my new role talking to people, some of whom I have worked with for years now and others who I am meeting for the first time. I have relished the opportunity to learn so much from so many, and I hope I am able to offer some insight in return.
Don’t lie to your dentist
People lie about flossing to the dentists providing them a service, and that bug of human behaviour is important to understand generally, and overcome personally. Rational adults, when asked by their own health care professionals about their behaviour, will provide inaccurate information. That information is intended to guide a decision that will affect the patient, so the incentive is for the patient to provide accurate information to receive the best possible care. Yet the desire to provide the answer they feel is “correct” overcomes their own interests. I would imagine similarly people tend to underestimate their drinking and smoking, and overestimate their exercise habits, when visiting their doctors.
Deception is a complex topic. All acting is based on the ability to assume an identity that is not ones own. The Economist lauds the benefits of teaching your children how to bluff. But deception, particularly financial or sexual, can destroy relationships. In this specific instance though, the harm of the dishonesty accrues directly to the person being dishonest, and yet the self-harm occurs. My guess would be that the combination of guilt, the desire to please, and a misunderstanding of the underlying reason for the question, combine to create a sense that providing the “socially acceptable” answer is more important than the truth. The frequency of instances of such behaviour suggests that those motivating factors are common.
In the (thankfully distant) past, I have suppressed negative emotions in an attempt to overcome them, and while there were some short term benefits, the overall effect was detrimental as the deeper causal issues were ignored. Generally places of work expect employees to “act professional”, i.e. without consideration or expression of individual emotion. This is flawed on several counts, it is difficult to do, it constrains identities, and it diminishes the ability to build trust between colleagues that can be so vital for well functioning teams. There is of course a dichotomy, too much unconstrained emotion can lead to disruption of a team’s work, and places difficult burdens on others. Something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is where the optimal position is on this, an environment that has positive relationships and provides emotional support, without spreading the (inevitable) negative experiences of an individual throughout the organisation.
It has been a tough week, with little time to explore ideas outside of work in any depth. A few short thoughts and two photos from head clearing exercise.
Courage is not experiencing an absence of fear, but rather acting in spite of it. If you are oblivious to danger, it is not a demonstration of courage to face it.
The prevalence of multiple solutions may indicate the absence of a good one. However there is a latency between consensus and improvements from innovation. The most popular isn’t necessarily the best, but it is optimal in some way, even if that is only being seen or known.
Nearly all events can be described in a more positive or negative light. This pandemic can be seen as a terrible loss of life, or a success of modern medicine and governments to save millions of lives. Every “failed” experiment teaches you something about the world. The Guardian produced a related video on perspective.
I’ve been thinking about what I feel is “good” and “bad” in a universal sense, but almost everything I think of is context dependent. Too much of a good thing is not a good thing. Physical exercise is good for you, but too much leads to injury. Healthy foods are good for you, but too much still makes you obese. Learning is good for you, but too much leaves no time to act on what has been learned (never mind the topic). Even drinking too much water can kill you. This of course is not a new idea.
Priorities become clear in a crisis. The pandemic continues to dominate life, news, and my research. I continue to cope well despite long hours most days, largely (as I’ve discussed in the last couple weeks) due to a community of supportive people around me along with a good diet and regular exercise. Another reason I’ve noticed is “crisis mode” narrows my focus onto a few specific tasks, removing choices, and thus I avoid decision fatigue. I am lucky that there are so many possibilities in my regular life, but invariably I end up feeling torn between possible commitments. In lock-down I can only be at home or in the lab, so I am not choosing between interesting lectures in Oxford, or potential hiking trips, or social events. There is much less fear of missing out, when there is less to miss out on.
Other thoughts from the week:
Will ending lock-down lead to a sudden increase in injuries?
I suspect when lock-down ends and gyms reopen, some proportion of people returning to their workouts after several weeks off will injure themselves. There have been several unexpected effects of the pandemic, such as a decline in accident and emergency admissions (perhaps because increases in hand-washing have led to fewer incidents of food poisoning, or perhaps because people are afraid of contracting COVID-19 by going to hospital). Gyms are closed to prevent transmission of the disease, and so people are not training and their strength and technique are diminishing. Though I hope everyone will return to training accounting for the break when gyms eventually reopen, I suspect there will be a measurable minority who attempt to resume at their pre-lock-down fitness and overexert themselves, resulting in injury and increased demand on rehabilitation services.
Things that seem special may not be
SARS-CoV-2 likely originated in animals (probably bats), making it a zoonotic disease. Bats have been known to carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans including marburg, the previous SARS, and Ebola. Naturally this raises questions about some special attribute of bats that make them more likely to spawn pandemic generating viruses. This paper from the University of Glasgow suggests that the only thing “special” about bats is their diversity. Together with the commonly disease associated Rodentia (rodents), Chiroptera (bats) account for 3938 species, or 60% of all mammal species. If viruses are randomly distributed amongst mammals, and the ability of those viruses to then infect humans is similarly random, then the observed frequency of diseases like COVID-19 coming from bats is explained without any special attribute of bats themselves.
This is a good reminder of a general principle, that because what we observe is so small relative to totality of existence, we are much more likely to attribute “special” meaning to general phenomena. I think this is most useful to remember when it comes to relationship and personal problems, as we assume our uniqueness implies a uniqueness of our problems. An example from this TED talk on depression describes a couple who are both hiding their prescription for antidepressants from each other because they both feel the other could not possibly understand.
It was another exciting (but confidential) week at ONI. Evenings included a little live music, training, reading, and trying out the game Terraforming Mars. The increase in daylight going into spring is improving my mood, and conversation continues to be dominated by COVID-19.
Honeywell, as a google image search will suggest, are mostly known for making safety equipment and thermostats. As a chemist, I also am familiar with buying Honeywell research chemicals. In this paper they have revealed that they are also developing quantum computing. While a huge conglomerate like Honeywell doesn’t need its various business units to be aligned, there is a (tenuous) link between thermostats and quantum computing. The delicate states of the ytterbium ions that hold the quantum information require ultra low temperatures, in this case -260.5°C at the trap.
New Zealand has a unique wildlife, including a historic lack of mammals, and subsequent flourishing of bird life. On the arrival of mammals (including us humans) bird life that had existed without predators suffered, but this recent paper shows that is not entirely due to lack of intelligence in birds.
Rockets are expensive, and not just the kind that will get us to Mars. “Israel, for example, routinely expends $50,000 interceptors on home-made rockets that cost about $1,000“. The solution to this? Lasers.
Kowal describes her use of sci-fi as “set dressing” to help “explore things that [she] is thinking about from the real world and it allows [her] to talk about them without all of the emotional baggage so [she] can approach them more as a thought experiment”. Dressed in sci-fi, Dr Elma York (main character) grapples with mental illness, patriarchy, and racism, while background elements invoke the politics of climate change.
It was new for me to read fiction where most of the cast, including the first person narrator, are women. As with film (I highly recommend checking out this blog post) women tend to be less represented in stories I read (e.g. The Lord of the Rings). While the main plot of The Calculating Stars centres on women fighting to be included as astronauts, The Fated Sky shifts focus to issues of race. The diversity of the cast is necessary for the story Kowal sets out to tell, and whilst she clearly has a progressive stance to share, at no point did I feel narrative was compromised to make a political point (though as far as I can tell I largely share the author’s views).
The first novel opens to a scene involving Elma and Nathaniel’s (main characters) sex life, and their emotional, sexual, and professional relationships feature significantly in both books. Kowal states in the Google Talk that she “wanted their relationship to always be rock solid”. I am fortunate that my relationship is similar enough to find myself relating to Elma and Nathaniel. While there has been criticism that “Nathaniel York is too perfect to be realistic” (which Kowal has responded to via twitter), being able to see the familiar stresses of over-commitment to work, mental illness, and maintaining intimacy over distance, helped me invest in them both as a couple and as individuals.
Science-fiction and fantasy make for interesting psychological insights into readers. While no one has experienced contact with aliens or magic, the audience’s immersion may be first broken by a very human behaviour. In the talk Kowal discusses that her writing is criticised for her depiction of Elma’s weaknesses as it seems contradictory for Elma to be so paralysed by anxiety in a social context but utterly comfortable with near death experiences in space craft. This is in spite of the real lived experiences of those with social anxiety disorder. Another criticism of the character I have seen in a few places regards her mathematical prowess:
“The least relatable thing about Elma is that she’s so smart that no one else can match her. She went to college at 14. She does math in her head. Oh, you have to solve differential equations with a piece of paper and a pencil? You’re actually a dumbass in comparison.” — librarything review by yvonnekins
I remember feeling a similar jealous sentiment towards Patrick Rothfuss’ protagonist in the Kingkiller Chronicle series. It is easy to be jealous of characters who are defined by their intelligence, particularly if you operate in a world where intelligence is worshipped. When it comes to astronauts however, Elma’s skills did not break my immersion, as I have seen astronauts tend to have pretty incredible CVs, e.g. Jonny Kim. Also child pilot and accomplished physicist Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski is not a fictional character.
Some uncomfortable feelings when I come to write about books
Generally, despite really enjoying the story, coming to reflect on it here inspired some painful feelings. While it would be easier to ignore those feelings, that would miss an opportunity to grow past them, and fail to follow the example of sharing personal weakness set by Kowal and others who inspire me. I feel it is important to hold and express thoughts about the books I read, and I couldn’t do that if I avoided emotions that come with reflection. Emotions are difficult to untangle, but two strands I can draw out are:
1. I feel I should write about books but I don’t know why or how. I feel disappointed with myself that when I finished the first book all that made it into the blog was “I finished reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, it is excellent.”
2. I read slowly. It is also disappointing to me that it took me nearly 3 months to read The Fated Sky. I quickly convert that rate of four books a year through the relatively short human lifespan, and feel a great sense of loss that there are so many texts I will never read.
I highly enjoyed both books (on paper), but given Kowal is a voice actor and does the narration, I would recommend listening to The Calculating Stars via audiobook. I eagerly anticipate the third book in Elma and Nathaniel’s story, due in 2022.
This week, in several situations, I ran out of time. By not setting end times for experiments, training sessions, or social occasions, I find myself realising on reflection that I regularly continue longer than would have been optimal. Of course the future is unknown, but making an estimate of how much time I ought to spend before I start, and then evaluating the situation once that time has elapsed, should help me to fit more into each day. This week’s longer post on productivity is highly relevant.
Things I wrote this week
I finished a set of thoughts on how to get more life into the fixed amount of time each day, i.e. productivity. Eventually I’ll reorganise the homepage of this website to have pages dedicated to a few significant topics, and I suspect productivity will be one of them.
Things to share this week
Atmospheric Optics collates visual phenomena that occur due to the spontaneous formation of optical systems in the sky, a common example being rainbows. Thinking about ice halos reminds me of X-ray crystallography, perhaps the most famous example being Photo 51.
Artist Simon Weckert walked around with a cart full of smartphones to trick google maps into plotting non-existent traffic jams. Whilst I find google maps traffic useful on the rare occasions when I drive, I find the “performance” of having a bright red cart full of smartphones intruding into live updating maps a cute reminder of the difference between reality and abstractions.
I want to get more done. I constantly have unfinished to-do lists and projects I would like to take on, if only I had more time. Rather than simply aspiring to have more time (e.g. by living longer), it is equally valuable to do more living in the time I have. I see increasing productivity as converting time I feel is wasted into time I feel is useful, by either decreasing the time useful tasks take or removing tasks that are not useful. This post is a collection of things I have found to help with this, and areas where I am seeking to improve.
Things that I think work
If I am mentally or physically unwell, my productivity rapidly decreases. Keep health as a priority. Assess it regularly, and take time to eat well, exercise, and sleep. Follow good hygiene practices. When ill, make recovery the single highest priority.
Increasing productivity and focus first require that you actually start doing something productive. Whatever that is, learning, training, meeting people, or something else, I often find myself hesitating to start. Fears of failure may be reasonable or unreasonable, but not starting at all makes failure a certainty. Of course some projects are more risky; the costs are higher, the harms can be bigger, but generally the first few steps don’t require such a big commitment, and having started I will be in a better place to assess what can be done. Simply put, just start.
Solve what you need to do, not what is easy to do
Focus on what is important, and do not be distracted by what is easy. I think most people are familiar with a time when, rather than write a difficult essay, or make a difficult phone call, suddenly they were inspired to reorganise their desk or tidy their house (Tim Urban goes more into procrastination in this TED talk). I’ve lately been thinking about it in terms of the diagram above; trying to focus my attention away from the easy but unproductive tasks and towards harder but more useful tasks. A related concept comes from an anecdote about Warren Buffett advising Mike Flint about goal setting.
Example – Science Easy Productive: Setting up experiment Hard Productive: Interpreting experimental results Easy Unproductive: Selecting nice colours for charts and plots Hard Unproductive: Writing new spreadsheet software
Example – Writing Easy Productive: Choosing a topic to write about Hard Productive: Actually writing about the topic Easy Unproductive: Selecting fonts, organising stationary Hard Unproductive: Writing in an unknown language
Example – Fitness Easy Productive: Signing up for a gym membership Hard Productive: Actually using the gym membership Easy Unproductive: Watching YouTube videos about how to exercise Hard Unproductive: Making YouTube videos about how to exercise
Use technology effectively
Tim Ferris shared this article about how to use your iPhone productively. I was a little underwhelmed by the focus on apps and content to consume, rather than actual phone tweaks that help avoid distractions. Smart phones are powerful devices that can be highly detrimental for productivity. While I am certainly more productive with a suite of tools in my pocket at all times, I can also be distracted by the similarly immense collection of toys. Armies of clever people work to increase the amount of time users spend in their app or on their website, and they are often successful. Some things I have found useful:
Make your phone binary. Either it is a “toy” used for relaxation and entertainment or it is a “tool” to help you work more effectively. If it is a toy you don’t need it with you when you are working. If it is a tool then don’t install games or use it to browse content where the main purpose is to be entertained.
Put your phone in black and white. Screen technology creates images more vivid, and therefore more captivating, than reality. For the majority of useful functions, a phone doesn’t need a colour screen. Putting it in black and white makes it less attention grabbing.
Do one task at a time. Build a habit of telling yourself what task you are picking up your phone to perform, performing it, and putting the phone away again. Sending that text message doesn’t need to lead to browsing Instagram. Checking the bus timetable doesn’t need to lead to reading a news article.
Turn your phone off. When you don’t need your phone, turn it off. Notice how often you pick it up and stare at a blank screen, and put it back into your pocket. If what you need to do isn’t worth waiting a few seconds for the phone to start up, it probably isn’t worth doing at all.
Time spent checking social media is not particularly useful, but time spent looking at your own content is especially not useful. I learned that in the early days of LinkedIn, 25-35% of clicks were people looking at their own profile. The speculated reason for this, with some evidence, is vanity. I can certainly feel the urge to check posts for likes, retweets, kudos, etc. It is validating to have people consume your content and approve it. It is also not worth checking repeatedly. The few minutes many times a day adds up to a meaningful amount, the interruption disrupts flow, and the emotions (envy, insecurity, and even the validation from being “liked”) are broadly negative.
Multitasking in some situations can boost productivity, and in others just slow things down. Learn what tasks go well together for you, and which ones shouldn’t go together. I am sure this varies significantly
An example of good multitasking: Listening to the news while doing steady state exercising. Not every training session should be hard, often I have less intense, putting-in-the-miles work outs. This is a great time to catch up on news.
An example of bad multitasking: Listening to music while writing. I enjoy it, but changes in songs, and particularly interesting lyrics, tend more often to disrupt my train of thought than to drown out distractions.
Define “possible” honestly
Motivation matters. Setting the bar too high for what level of productivity I want to achieve, or putting too many things on a to-do list, leads to failure, and that failure can sap away confidence and motivation to do more. Be realistic with what can be achieved, keep the ego in check, and when things become overwhelming take time to pause, cut back, and start again with a lighter load.
Things I haven’t worked out
Consume content carefully
I read slowly, and I suspect inefficiently. There is so much content being produced at such an incredible rate, I find myself “tab hoarding”, filling hard drives with PDFs, trying to skim academic papers that I forget immediately, and buying books faster than I finish them. I think the problem is needing to be selective, and to learn to not be “completionist” in my reading, but rather focus on finding things that sit comfortably in my Zone of Proximal Development, and skipping things in a text that I already know, or are well beyond my grasp.
Keep in touch
I am still not good at keeping in touch with friends. I lose time I could be using to catch up with them (via a plethora of communication platforms) fretting about how much I have failed to meet my own expectations on frequency of correspondence. I suppose this is because I am not good at selecting which relationships I ought to prioritise, and effectively let random encounters define which people I spend time with. In not wanting to leave anyone out, I leave everyone out.
Long term goals
Finally, and most challenging to me, finding a major goal to unify my interests, my work, and my hobbies, so that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. I lack direction, and this means that many projects I begin and abandon which might not otherwise have been wastes of time, become so.
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Week 5 sees the end of January 2020, and momentum building both in work and play as I accelerate away from the holiday season. I have been reminded in multiple ways that qualities we celebrate and often treat as innate, such as intelligence, strength, and courage, are developed through practice rather than fixed at birth. It is inspiring and motivating to see others grow. On a trivial note, today’s date is a palindrome 2020-02-02 (ISO 8601 format).
19,547 Calories Kilian Jornet is a professional athlete who enjoys going up mountains. Last year he skied non stop for 24 hours and managed to gain 23 km in elevation, or nearly three “Everest”s. Doing this required nearly 20,000 kcal (as estimated by Strava), so refuelling would take 37 Big Macs (it actually surprised me how low that number is).
Physical Training Update
I am hoping to break 3 hours for the marathon in 2020, but training has been delayed by an Achilles injury. Rest was the right approach, and I’ve tried to substitute indoor rowing and indoor cycling as low impact alternatives for endurance training. It has been satisfying to see the numbers for weekly “Relative Effort” (based on heart rate) on Strava go up, but as I resume running this hasn’t translated well into speed over ground.
It is frustrating to have to hold back and turn down opportunities to train with friends. It is teaching me the importance of focusing on long term goals to make smarter choices in individual sessions. I’ve also been thinking about this TED talk about the importance of training “easy”. I tend to train “hard” every workout, but this may be less effective the fitter I become. When new to running, race-pace and training-pace can be the same thing, but as fitness increases maximum effort sessions take more recovery time and are more likely to result in injury. Some hard sessions are necessary, but not every session can nor should feel hard.
I’ve also learned that for indoor rowers, power into the machine (watts) is proportional to speed cubed, rather than squared as I would have guessed. That is, an additional 50 W of power brings a 500 m split time of 2:31.8 s/500 m (or 100 W) down to 2:12.6 (19.2 seconds faster), but the next 50 W increment only saves 12.1 seconds more, then 8.6 s, then 6.5 s, until halving the split to 1:15.9 (i.e. doubling the speed) requires 8 times more power at 800 W.
The Banff Mountain Film Festival tour came to the New Theatre in Oxford on Tuesday 28th January 2020. The Oxford showing featured the “red” program, the other being “blue”, and you can see both lists of films here. I had not attended a film festival for years, but had grown up with Tropfest in Sydney, and was excited to share my enjoyment of film and adventure with friends.
I expected that a film festival about adventures involving mountains would include action-camera and drone footage, and the intense video game quality of Charge met those expectations.
The rags-to-riches story of the eponymous South African trail running champion left me wanting to go out and get in some more miles. There is a beautiful simplicity to running, and the wide shots of Thabang running over dusty roads exemplify it.
BASE jumping is an incredibly dangerous sport, and not one I aspire to. This tiny 3 minute spectacle did make what is often seen as a stunt for adrenaline junkies feel closer to an art form, whilst also getting the audience’s hearts pumping.
Sarah Outen’s story intertwines the physical challenges of attempting to circumnavigate the world by human power alone, with the psychological challenges of poor mental health and grieving for her father. It is intimate, inspiring, and often raw in a way that makes the alien experience of spending months alone at sea relatable.
Nouria Newman kayaks solo through 375 km of rapids to join the Indus river. This film, and films like it, convert a geographical fact (850 cubic meters of water per second) into a tangible sense of the power of a river that cradled one of earth’s earliest civilizations. Newman took a self-admittedly stupid risk, and very nearly paid for it with her life, but the story (and her courage) is compelling.
Slacklining, something I am mostly familiar with as a side show to rock climbing and university student picnicking, is brought into the political realm by two teams, one Mexican and one American, working together to cross the Rio Grande. Having crossed land borders in Europe absentmindedly, it is still a little shocking to remember how intensely polarised the debate is regarding migration in the US.
A humorous documentary on speed climbing (a new sport in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics) featured interesting interviews with the setter of the defining route (slapped together in 3 hours), the aesthetic Iranian team, and a slew of athletes who will be contesting gold medals in only a few months time.
Danny MacAskill demonstrates his cycling skill over a series of stunts towing a bicycle pram. This fun video showcases some beautiful Scottish landscapes and elicited the most gasps and groans from the audience of the night. It reminded me of the similar Road Bike Party videos, which also feature Danny.