2019 Week 45: Competition and Robots

Short version: Some thoughts on the blurry line where competition becomes toxic, and also robots.

Long version:

Competition

The story:
Athlete Mary Cain wrote and spoke with the New York Times about her experience training with the Nike Oregon Project, which ended recently after the head coach Alberto Salazar was banned due to involvement with doping. The environment at Nike Oregon Project was physically and mentally damaging for athletes like Cain, and for her the experience was clearly toxic. It is harder to say the project as a whole was toxic, because for other athletes (including Mo Farah) that environment led to enormous success. I am reminded of the ritual of stabbing a pin into ones chest practiced by elite military groups. Objectively this is painful and physically damaging, but so is much of what is used in selecting elite units.

My thoughts:
Pain, either physical or emotional, ought not always be avoided, but neither should it be sought out. In competitive environments an ability and willingness to suffer is a factor in success, whether the environment is a sports field, or a business sector, or a war. In my experience that suffering is much easier to bear when I feel I am choosing to face it, rather than it being imposed upon me. This is the contradiction of self-harm, that when suffering is imposed on someone they sometimes react by imposing further suffering upon themselves. It is worryingly unclear to me where the line is between good and healthy competition vs. a bad and damaging environment, but the evidence would suggest that the in a given environment like Nike Oregon Project, some can thrive while others will be crushed.

Robots

I encountered robotic arms that emulate a bartender in London this week, pictured below. It feels like something out of science fiction, where human like robots perform labour for their fleshy masters. While the spectacle of the arms at work is attention grabbing, a more elegant solution to dispensing beverages is the Coca Cola freestyle, (pictures of the internals from reddit here and here) which also can produce a large variety of mixtures, but in location and design is very similar to the more mundane soda dispenser. Consumer technology is often marketed through the cold lense of quantitative performance metrics, but our relationship with that technology (and our willingness to consume it) is just as emotional as the art that inspires it. We as a society built this robotic bartender (and so many other things), not because it was a practical solution to the problem of how to add tonic water to gin, but because it entertains us by feeling like the future we imagine.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 46: Patents

Short version: Patents reward innovators but limit the impact of new technologies. Also “patents” are the answer to the question “Why did Samsung build the only outdoor ice rink in Texas in a small town.”

Long version:

What I learned reading and thinking about patents

Patents are a part of the law, which is an ever changing system. As governments create and change laws, and those laws are interpreted and tested in courts, we collectively decide how the rewards of science and technology are distributed.

There is very little that is certain or obvious about patents. Their existence is both an incentive and a barrier to innovation. They can both enrich and impoverish inventors. They can both be utterly invisible and hugely controversial.

Patent trolling was used in the US to extort businesses, which seems to have peaked around 2015, and has since declined.

Some patents provide useful and specific descriptions of technology, whilst others are deliberately broad and vague.

Biotechnology has struggled to fit into the existing patent infrastructure, particularly as the line blurs between what is an invented object and what is part of nature.

Patent Trolls: Why Samsung built an ice rink in Texas

This article from Harvard Business School outlines how patent trolling, the use of frivolous patent lawsuits by businesses uninterested in innovation, led Samsung to try and win favour with potential jurors in Marhsall, Texas by building an ice rink there. Samsung also set up high school scholarships in the town, but when a supreme court decision meant that the jurisdiction where the suit was filed needed to be in the state of incorporation, the branding on the ice and the scholarships dissipated. More recently a paper was published about patent trolls last year.

Samsung, seeking favour with potential jurors, awarded scholarships to high school students in Marshall, Texas.

Patent Examples

The race to patent the Human Genome

Craig Venter’s company raced public researchers to be the first to sequence the Human Genome. You can read the story in Patrick Bradley’s paper. I found the twitter exchange below interesting, but was not able to verify or refute Venter’s claim that it was “untrue and was propaganda”. Certainly there was a race, and patents played a part, as they continue to do in biotechnology research.

BRCA1 and BRCA2

The other famous case within biotech patents is of Myriad Genetic’s patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2, two mutations related to breast cancer. Enforcing the patents meant diagnostic tests for inherited breast cancer were expensive. The debate centred on the question of whether DNA sequences could be considered a discovery or an invention, i.e. a technical question about how biotech fits within the existing patent system. Ultimately the patents were struck down. The underlying question, how much should we allow companies to profit from their research (at the expense of society, but to give incentives for more research) remains.

Intellectual Property and Piracy

Looking at patents led on to questions about copyright, trademarks, and intellectual property in general. In a world where replication of content is so trivial, and distribution technologies (i.e. the internet) are spreading so rapidly, it is unlikely legal enforcement can keep up in a meaningful way. This crash course provides some information, and I would like to return to think about the ethics of digital piracy, peer to peer sharing, and what the fairest way to regulate content could be.

A note about being connected on the internet

I find it strangely wonderful how connected the internet makes us. From a train, a coffee shop, or even my bed, I can reach out to authors and scientists, and access nearly all of the knowledge humanity has created. In researching this post, I could find out the Marshall high schools’ Samsung scholarship winners, or tweet at scientists like Craig Venter, or access patents from hundreds of years worth of inventions. It is such a powerful tool.

Other things in my life this week:

Rivers in Oxford have been rising, causing flooding around the Isis and Cherwell (see photos from the week). This excellent tracker from Anu Dudhia makes it easy to keep an eye on conditions.

I finished reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, it is excellent.

Three friends have signed up to the Edinburgh marathon, so running has gotten more social.

Photos from the Week – Flooding

2019 Week 44: Migrants

Short version: Thoughts prompted by recent news about migration. Some very brief notes on nutrition and technology news.

Long version:

Migrants

Content warning: if you’re having a bad day, maybe skip this one:

Context
Since it was revealed that the 39 people who died in a refrigerated lorry container were Vietnamese nationals attempting to illegally enter the UK, I’ve been thinking a lot about migrants. There are a number of things to unpack here, and I find it hard to tell if I am more hesitant because I lack expertise on the topic, or I find the exercise emotionally confronting.

Scale
I have written about how data can be unsympathetic. Just as mass shootings are powerful examples of a larger gun violence problem, so too are the 39 dead migrants a shocking but statistically small part of a much larger issue. The missing migrant program attempts to track data, and in 2016 there were 39 fatalities every two days for the entire year. These recent deaths make up a small fraction of the 2,589 total for 2019 so far.

Emotions
In some ways the idea of sneaking into the United Kingdom in a truck with 38 other people is utterly alien, and in other ways it is entirely relatable. The tension between those extremes creates some difficult emotions. I am a migrant, as are my siblings, my parents, most of my friends and colleagues. I know the desire to go to foreign lands to seek out opportunities, to live a more comfortable life, but only from a position of immense privilege where I take little risk in fulfilling those desires. Meanwhile I owe my existence to my parents who fled difficult times in the lands of their birth.


I found the following image most disturbing:

The last message from Pham Thi Tra My, 26, was sent to her family at 22:30 BST on Tuesday – two hours before the trailer arrived at the Purfleet terminal from Zeebrugge in Belgium.
Her family have shared texts she sent to her parents which, translated, read: “I am really, really sorry, Mum and Dad, my trip to a foreign land has failed.
“I am dying, I can’t breathe. I love you very much Mum and Dad. I am sorry, Mother.”

From BBC article Essex lorry deaths: Appeal to Vietnamese over victims’ identities

Pham Thi Tra had a smartphone, just like mine or yours. A piece of technology that could connect her with nearly any human on the planet. She could communicate with her parents half the world away from that refrigerated container, but could not call someone meters away to open it, to save her life and the lives of her fellow travellers. In a globally connected world she could trivially access so much information, and she decided the dangerous journey to the UK was worth the risk.

Justice
I am conflicted. Laws restricting migration that mean desperate people risk their lives to cross borders in such dangerous ways. These laws seem to exist to protect my quality of life and privilege at the expense of opportunities for others. I believe human beings should be of equal value be they born in Hanoi or Hobart, but the harsh economic reality is they are not. It seems unjust that laws exist to prevent them from pursuing the same quality of life, however if I were given the opportunity to open all borders around the world, I would hesitate. I do not know what such a world would look like, for example people might rush towards centers of wealth only to be crushed by competition with one another for those opportunities.

Some other unstructured thoughts about migrants:

Language:
The words we use around migration is not trivial. We tend to call wealthy migrants expats, (short for expatriate), compared to the derogatory connotations of “immigrant”. In Australia “asylum seekers” are often connected to “boat people“, perhaps in comparison to aeroplane people?

IOM Publications
Photos by Amanda Nero gave me some more insight into the camps around Calais. They also produce comprehensive reports.

Migrants Make Things Better
McKinsey and the UN conclude some significant positive effects of migration.

Australia
Australia has shockingly hypocritical views on immigration for a country overwhelmingly populated by non-native peoples. Some data on migration flows in Australia.

Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN)

I’m taking vitamin D supplements this winter, due largely to this pretty long report about vitamin D which feeds into the NHS recommendation. I would like to research and write in more detail about the authors and research behind such reports, but considering what is Changing My Mind, the authority of the government, academic, and health care institutions linked to the SACN reports is convincing.

Technology News

Science Fiction Settings:
Blade Runner was set in November 2019.

Asthma:
The NHS is thinking about the carbon cost of different inhalers.

Starcraft
AI is getting good at StarCraft II.

Google Buys Fitbit
The press release from Fitbit. Engadget article. DCRainmaker blog post. 2 billion dollars is a lot of money, but it is substantially less than the peak of Fitbit at nearly 10 Billion shortly after its IPO (see chart below). It doesn’t feel that long ago that Fitbit acquired Pebble, a maker of e-ink smart watches and a rarely successful kickstarter project.

Historic Market Cap of Fitbit

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 43: Big Things

Short version: A few big things to talk about; nuclear war, bribes, engineered environments, mistakes, and courses.

Long version:

Big Problems

In Oxford I enjoy meeting people passionate about studies I might not have otherwise ever considered. This week I was introduced to ALLFED, a group who spend their time working out how to feed the population who survive a nuclear war. In the current political climate it can be both frightening and paralysing to think the fate of billions rests on the whim of a few individuals. Knowing some out there are trying to be prepared give me confidence that humanity can survive its own incredible destructive power. This work fits under the umbrella of Effective Altruism, which is persuasive (I have a few friends who are strong proponents) but also complex.

Big Presents

There is a common understanding that bribery is wrong, but it is not immediately obvious why. The answer I seem to find is that the central issue of bribery is when a person is able to take an advantage for themselves (the bribe) in exchange for acting against the external interests they represent (e.g. the university in the case of a college admissions administrator). Some examples:

This year a scandal broke regarding admissions to US colleges, where coaches were bribed to select students without athletic ability on an athletic basis. At face value the harm here appears to be a violation of meritocratic principles; students ought be selected on their talent rather than the wealth of their parents. In fact generally wealthy parents are able to have their students attend top universities despite their academic or sporting ability, via large donations to universities. The wrong here comes from the coaches personally profiting from the student’s admission, rather than the university itself.

In China large gifts were given by banks to politicians, and in Australia political donations by banks have been scrutinised, while the volumes of donations in the US are much higher. Cash donations, crystal tigers, coffee; for politicians these rarely come without strings attached. A journalist buying coffee or even a meal in exchange for an interview seems natural, a company paying a politician to be awarded a contract is graft. In between these, it is difficult to work out where courts or courts of public opinion ought to draw the line.

Big Artificial Environments

People have managed to make some incredible changes to their environment. This week The Wave opened in England, an artificial lake that generates artificial waves so that people can surf. There is also warm weather skiing on plastic and the more extreme indoor ski slope cooled to negative temperatures in hot Dubai. The football world cup will required air conditioned stadiums. All this gives hope that technology can repair the damage we are doing from burning fossil fuels, but also these feats of engineering require enormous amounts of energy themselves.

Big Mistakes

In my reading about health, smoking seems to be the worst decision a person can make. This week I saw some calculations about how smoking is a terrible financial mistake, in addition to the health costs.

Big Classes

This week I finished a Massive open online course (MOOC) on statistics, making it the first online course I’ve completed. Previous attempts, such as the biology course I started in Week 28, have been derailed by lack of interest or energy. I was particularly reminded of the importance of working in your Zone of Proximal Development by this line of mathematics.

Depending on your familiarity with logarithms, this may either appear indecipherable or trivial. I particularly remember encountering logs around the age of 15, and it being the point in my mathematical learning where maths stopped being intuitive. It was confronting to not find the subject easy. Unfortunately I couldn’t see or be shown how pushing past that initial discomfort would lead to valuable personal growth, and I moved away from mathematics to subjects I “felt I was better at”. I think the feeling of being overwhelmed, of being stuck, drives many people away from opportunities to grow and empower themselves, and it is a feeling I am still striving to become more comfortable with.

Photos from the week

Dry Ice Fog for Halloween

2019 Week 42: Hot, Loud, Crazy, and Numb.

Short version: Heating Engineering is effective but unintuitive. Tim Minchin’s Back tour, DNA and Microscopy, We loses billions, a dip in my Mental Health.

Long version:

Heating – Great Engineering Terrible Design

If you have radiators for heating the numbers on the valve are not arbitrary, but adjust flow to maintain temperature automatically. Therefore they can be set to a desired temperature and left in that position without need for adjustment based on weather.

Central heating was a novel experience for me when I moved to the UK. A common system (which is fitted in my home) is to have a single boiler that heats water (in my case by burning gas, the alternative being electric heating) that then flows into radiators throughout the house. Each radiator has a valve. Only recently I learned that the valves attached to each radiator are more complex than they appear; rather than simply controlling flow directly (like a tap at a sink), they contain a material that is sensitive to temperature (wax) and the flow is adjusted to keep the radiator at a fixed temperature. If the radiator is set at position 3, corresponding to 20°C, and the temperature in the room is 21°C, no water will flow as the expansion of wax closes the valve. If the room cools to 19°C then the wax contracts and opens the valve, allowing hot water to flow. This document from Honeywell provides some more explanation.

On the one hand, this is clever engineering that ultimately saves energy by preventing unnecessary heating. On the other, the arbitrary 0 to 5 scale, instead of marking the temperature that the valve maintains, makes this feature counter-intuitive. Without being told about this I doubt I would have ever noticed this self-regulation. The combined thermal mass of radiators and the rooms they heat is large, thus the changes from adjusting the valve occur too slowly to observe easily.

Even something ubiquitous and seemingly simple can be surprisingly complex.

Tim Minchin

I saw Tim Minchin play in Oxford this weekend. Songs included 15 Minutes and Woody Allen Jesus. The show was fun, loud, irreverent, self-indulgent, and self-aware. It was an immersive reminder to me that while technology gives us the incredible opportunity to experience almost the entire library of music almost anywhere, there is an intimacy and immediacy to seeing a live performance that makes the experience more powerful. In this comedic performance, the energy of the performers and their impromptu interactions with each other and the audience makes listening alone to recordings comparatively cold and dry.

At a few points while monologuing Minchin pointed out how his earlier songs which come from the perspective of a (relatively) impoverished artist now conflict with his huge (financial) successes. He also addressed the modern “tribes” of progressives and conservatives, and the contradiction of his (huge) personal carbon footprint and his concerns about the environment. It particularly hit home (given the last section of this blog post) to hear him describe his first experience with depression; being sad that his hundred-million-dollar cartoon was binned from a house looking over the ocean, which was paid for by his hugely successful musical. There is a sense that when one is so lucky, so privileged, that mental illness is unacceptable, and yet, it does affect us.

Two Interesting Things from Nature

A narrative regarding the discovery of the structure of DNA, and a comment about the need for easier access to microscopy.

Business in 2019

Is crazy. Consider this quote from this article:

If you wake up on a Casper mattress, work out with a Peloton before breakfast, Uber to your desk at a WeWork, order DoorDash for lunch, take a Lyft home, and get dinner through Postmates, you’ve interacted with seven companies that will collectively lose nearly $14 billion this year.


Derek Thompson
writes in The Atlantic

Venture capitalists have essentially subsidised tech-y westerners to the tune of $100 each (Assuming about 140 million people use these loss making services). Meanwhile WeWork seems to be imploding.

Mental Health

I’ve had a (hopefully brief) decline in mental health recently. It is tempting to look for causation. I could guess at less daylight, or colder temperatures, or working beyond a sustainable amount recently. Maybe it is my experimental work, which while intellectually stimulating, occasionally has patches of repeated failures. Each failed experiment whittles away at confidence and motivation, and creates a sense that the whole exercise is pointless. Importantly though, sometimes there is no cause, or the cause is not concurrent with the effect. All I really know is I woke up on Friday feeling numb, unmotivated, and wanting desperately to escape my own thoughts. I am very lucky to have colleagues and friends who are understanding and supportive. I have learnt that alcohol is a bad way to escape. I am trying to be patient with myself. If I get nothing useful done in a day that is frustrating, but a constant stream of self-berating doesn’t help. I know things will get better.

2019 Week 41: Changing your mind

Short version: An interesting question to reflect on, a mantra I find useful, another reason to avoid diabetes, the Nobel Prize rejection, and making my phone less distracting.

What would it take to change your mind?

I’ve been thinking about this question recently. In many ways our beliefs about the world, what we hold “in mind”, is intertwined with our identity. How those ideas form, and how they can be changed, informs who we are and how we act. I have not spent much time thinking about what specific influences would be required to change my beliefs. I would like to think that, as a scientist, I am willing to “turn on a dime” in response to strong evidence, but what specifically constitutes strong evidence?

On a population level changing minds is critical to governance. Journalist Carole Cadwalladr gave a TED talk with some fascinating images; advertisements run on Facebook that she suggests influenced Welsh citizens to vote against their own interests on the Brexit referendum. I wonder if those citizens would be able to identify what caused them to be so fearful of hypothetical Turkish migrants (specifically) or the EU (generally), and what evidence or experiences they would now require to lose those fears.

I would suggest you try the thought experiment (and would love to hear your thoughts!). Consider what might cause you to change your mind on beliefs that you hold at different strengths. What might make you change the political party you feel aligned with? Your religious views? Views on climate change? On who you are? At the moment my own thoughts are quite confused, but I find the exercise interesting.

A useful mantra

When trying to understand why someone has acted to cause you harm, I find it useful to remember the order of these three causes:
Apathy. Incompetence. Malevolence.

I realised that it is very rare that a negative occurrence is the result of malicious intent, but often we suspect that cause. I’ve explained my thoughts (and the three word reminder above) a couple times in person in recent weeks.

First for something malicious to occur someone needs to care enough to do consider a malicious act and then act on that thought. Most people just do not give significant thought to others, and generally people err on the side of inaction. Even when a relationship is positive and significant, the frequency of thinking of doing something good translating into actually doing it is relatively low, and most people only have a small number of such intense relationships. Consider how many such strong relationships you have, compared with how many people you cross paths with regularly, and this can likely be extrapolated to others. Just as apathy may cause you to thoughtlessly inconvenience one of these people, so too might their apathy inconvenience you. (There is a related punchline in a joke about gun ownership I rather enjoy: if you are buying a gun for personal defence you must (absurdly) have a high opinion of yourself that anyone cares enough about you to try and attack you).

Second, much of the time when we try to influence the world we make mistakes and influence it in an unintentional way. Just as a good intention can produce a bad outcome, so too does an attempt to manifest a bad intention have a chance of producing a good outcome, or no outcome at all. Since most people tend not to practice malicious acts regularly (I hope), then most people even if attempting to cause harm will do so poorly. More often people trying to be good may fail, and therefore accidentally cause harm. The harm is caused by incompetence rather than malice.

Finally, only if apathy and incompetence are considered and ruled out should we consider ill will. Our mind rushes to this conclusion first, stories we learn from an early age arrange themselves around characters acting in opposition, “good” vs “bad”. It is more comfortable to consider a simple and ordered narrative where people are competent and their actions match their intentions, rather than the complex disordered reality where the two are often not coupled. We are at the centre of our own misfortune, and so assume people can see what we do and must therefore notice and care about our strong emotion. Ultimately these are misguided assumptions.

Remember, when next bitterly considering why you were wronged, the likely reason is Apathy, then Incompetence, and only then, Malevolence.

Diabetes and Alzheimer’s

Diabetes is a prevalent disease in the developed world, and can partially be addressed through lifestyle interventions, like maintaining a healthy diet (and hence weight) and exercising. If there weren’t already enough reasons to avoid diabetes, I’ve recently come across the term “type-3” diabetes, an alternate name for Alzheimer’s disease, due to similarities between the diseases and correlation between Alzheimer’s disease and type-2 diabetes.

Nobel Prize Winner’s Nature Rejection Letters

This week the Nobel Prizes were announced, including one for Peter J Ratcliffe, for his work on hypoxia. I’ve seen some tweets sharing a letter to Ratcliffe declining to publish a paper from him. The message is often one of encouragement to persevere in the face of criticism, or that Nature has made a serious blunder by not publishing the work.

The assumptions here are interesting. Ratcliffe’s Nobel Prize indicates a significant contribution, but it does not mean that every paper he wrote warranted publication at all, let alone publication in any specific journal. Perseverance is naturally a requirement for success in a field (trivially if you quit before you succeed you cannot succeed), but that perseverance needs to include a willingness to adapt to both criticism and praise from peers, not blindness to it (though that adaptation can also be bolstering evidence and pushing back against the criticism, rather than conceding to it). Finally the publisher here (Nature) is responding to the comments of the reviewers who would be other researchers in the field (peers), rather than merely dismissing the work, which I feel can be lost in the suggestion that Nature made a mistake not publishing the work: they were following the procedures which fundamentally led to their success and prestige as a journal.

As an aside: Ratcliffe ended up having 28 papers (to date) in Nature family journals, of which 3 are in nature itself, so I doubt anyone is holding a grudge.

Phone Distractions

I wrote about changing my search engine, and while some tasks now take longer I have adapted and think there is some improvement to the content I consume. This week, at a friend’s suggestion, I switched my phone to monochrome (greyscale), in an attempt to make it less visually alluring. I am surprised how effective such a small change is, the content is the same, but the stimulus is reduced, and it makes it easier to moderate my time mindlessly scrolling.

Oxford Half Marathon

This week I ran the Oxford half marathon, and while at the moment I am still overdue on the Blenheim Palace half race report, I’m hoping to write both and update the respective blog posts soon.

Photos from the week

2019 Week 40: Charts and Code

Short version: Intuitions about how we look at data. Taking small steps with code. Art at the Tate Modern.

Long version:

Sneaky Spreadsheets

This week I have been processing some experimental data and realised how the same data can be plotted in seemingly different ways. Often looking at the numbers themselves can be challenging, particularly if there are hundreds of points with multiple values at each point. For this example we take some simple data about income distribution in the UK. The numbers alone are accurate but making inferences takes consideration and a little mental arithmetic.

A linear column chart is the simplest and fastest way to visualise the data in a spreadsheet program (excel, google sheets, open office calc). It shows the 99th percentile as much larger than the other values, and the increases seem bigger between the higher percentiles.

Taking a logarithmic plot makes each step along the distribution seem more even, but the 99th percentile still seems noticeably larger.

But by changing the minimum axis value on a logarithmic plot the distribution seems much flatter overall.

And we can go to the opposite extreme, by plotting a pie chart the high income earners (top 1%) seem to take a massive share of the pie.

Code

I am not proficient in code, and find that embarrassing. That is an odd statement, I’m not proficient at many things (skateboarding, Portuguese speaking, cello playing) but few of those things cause me to feel embarrassment. Technological proficiency, unlike skating or playing a string instrument, is a part of my identity, and I feel that being able to code (or at least write basic scripts) is a part of being good with tech. When I go to write code, I am confronted by the gap between what I feel my skill should be and where my skills actually are, which is uncomfortable. Moreover it causes me to hide, refraining from asking for help, and I end up doing things in a slow and repetitive way. To push back against that urge, here is an attempt to write a simple python script to extract folder information from a directory tree.

import os
import re
print "This removes files from saved directory trees"
path = "./"
print "I will run in the local folder"
linecount = 0
for filename in os.listdir(path):
        if filename[len(filename)-4:]==".txt":
            with open(os.path.join(path, filename), "r") as file:
                output= open(filename[0:len(filename)-4]+"_folders.txt","w+")
                for line in  file:
                    if len(line) > 6:
                        if line[len(line)-6]!=".":
                            if line[len(line)-5]!=".":
                                if line[len(line)-6:]!="Cloud\n":
                                    output.write(line)
                                    linecount = linecount +1
            print("I found "+str(linecount)+" lines and put them into "+filename[0:len(filename)-4]+"_folders.txt")
            linecount = 0
        else:
            print("I did not process "+filename)
            linecount = 0

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Photos from the week

From the Tate Modern exhibition by Olafur Eliasson

2019 Week 39: Microwaves, Search, and Running.

Short version: I try and explain how microwaves work, I changed my search engine, and ran the Blenheim Palace half marathon.

Long version:

Microwave (ovens)

This week over a (reheated) dinner I tried to explain how microwave ovens work. It was a good reminder of the difficulties of discussing science; first in actually knowing the underlying science, then in communicating it to different people with different (unknown) levels of prior understanding. It was humbling to stumble between gaps in my understanding of a common household appliance and a failure to find the language to explain what I did understand. After refreshing myself on the physics, I try to explain again.

To start:
Microwave ovens convert electrical energy to heat, and are used for warming and cooking food. Other electrical cooking appliances (e.g. stoves, ovens, grills, toasters, and kettles) use the property that a flow of electricity heats the wire (conductor) it flows through. Microwaves make electromagnetic waves (like visible light or radio waves) in the microwave region of the spectrum (hence the name), which heat food (particularly water) as they pass through it. Conventional methods of heating food heat from the surface which gradually warms inwards, where as microwaves can heat food from the inside directly.

Assumed knowledge:
It is easy (and fun!) to get into a spiral of questions about what “heat”, “food”, “electricity” and “electromagnetic waves” are. More information about the parts of a system help build a foundation form where the combined system can be understood; it is hard to understand the science of cooking without understanding a little of the chemistry of what food is, or the physics of what heat is. Also seemingly unrelated knowledge can be useful; if how a musical instrument generates certain sounds is known, then the similar principles of resonant frequencies helps to explain how the microwaves are generated by the magnetron, another type of resonant cavity.

The best I can do:
Food goes in a metal box (a cavity) that stops microwaves escaping. Electricity (240 V AC mains) goes to a transformer that changes the voltage into two windings, a high voltage (approx 2000V) and a low voltage (approx 5 V). The lower voltage powers the user interface (e.g. the clock) and the higher voltage powers the microwave generator, called a magnetron. The magentron is a cylindrical vacuum cavity (closed metal tube with no air) where electrons are thrown off a central filament and travel to the outer walls. Strong magnets cause the electrons to travel along curved paths, and the cavity has spokes that extend from the outer walls most of the way towards the central filament. The spacing of these spokes and the strength of the magnets is tuned so that a specific frequency of electromagnetic radiation (microwaves) are generated by moving charger in the magentron, and these microwaves are guided by a metal tube (wave guide) into the larger cavity containing the food. The generated microwaves bounce around the cavity until they interact with water molecules (and sugars and some fats) in food to vibrate them. This is observed microscopically as heating.

A comprehensive explanation:
Can be found in this paper by Michael Vollmer. Also this video is a good guide.

Microwaves and super-res:
At the moment I work with super-resolution microscopes, which connects with microwave ovens in an interesting way: The grill that lets the user see their food being heated has holes (approx 1 mm across) that are much larger than the wavelength of visible light (approx 0.001 mm) but much smaller than the wavelength of the microwaves (approx 122 mm). Waves cannot “see” and object much smaller than the wavelength of the wave, called the “diffraction limit”. Thus the grill on the door of a microwave oven is “diffraction limited” from the perspective of the microwaves, in the same way that cellular structures can be “diffraction limited” from visible light. I am not sure if the equivalent optics exist for microwaves as in visible light, but it could be possible (though not particularly useful) to super-resolve structures using microwaves. Given microwaves are used in radar, perhaps such techniques are already used for detection of rain, birds, or aircraft.

Small Nudge to Search:

This week I changed my default search engine from google to google scholar.

This has had frustrating consequences; where as typically to find out where a place is, what tomorrow’s weather would be, or to play a song, I simply press the hot-key for a new browser tab and type what I want, that now gives me search results from the academic literature. There are no papers telling me if it will rain in Oxford tomorrow.

I do think this is a useful step. I’ve been reading a little about nudges, a concept linked to Richard Thaler. Changing the default search makes it slightly easier to do literature searches, and slightly harder to do general web searches, which I hope (and expect) will nudge me towards consuming better quality content.

Value-Action Gap

I came across the term “Value-action Gap“, which adds a technical but intuitive term where I would otherwise use the more judgemental “hypocrisy” or the more debater-jargon “principle consistency”. I like hearing opinions on why it is that people often act out of alignment with their beliefs, and am often surprised at my own capacity for cognitive dissonance.

Blenheim Palace Half Marathon

Slightly disappointed with my time, but it was a fun race. I will be adding a race report soon.

Photo from the Week:

2019 Week 38: Food Miles and Mental Health

Short version: I ate an apple, which got me thinking about climate change. I’ve also been talking about mental health. Purdue went bust. Not every article with 300 citations is novel.

Long version:

Climate Economics: Food Miles

I was eating an apple, here in Oxford, and discovered from the oft mocked apple sticker that it had been grown in an orchard in New Zealand (on the other side of the planet). This struck me as a problem; surely the fuel in transporting food around the world is an externality contributing to climate change. I wanted to know the specific quantity of fuel burned to make this possible, and found this study from New Zealand university Lincoln that claims there is a smaller climate impact from consuming New Zealand apples in the UK compared with local ones. I am sceptical, and will hope to follow up on this in a later post, but the data is summarised in table 7.3 on page 72. Summarising and converting the units to equivalent millilitres of Diesel burned we get:

Equivalent Fuel Burned
(diesel in mL) per apple (assume 100 g) for
:
NZ ApplesUK Apples
Direct energy consumption at orchard15.679.4
“Chemicals” e.g. fertiliser pesticides12.917.6
Shipping (NZ) and “Cold storage” (UK)65.244.8
Total93.7141.8

So New Zealand is much more efficient at producing apples (about 5x less energy per apple is needed at the orchard), which largely corresponds to better yield per area of land (at 50 tonnes vs 14 tonnes of produce per hectare in New Zealand and the UK respectively), but also is due to better use of renewable electricity generation in NZ (particularly hydroelectric, wiki links to UK and NZ). This energy difference is almost entirely closed by the fuel used in shipping, but the use of “cold storage” of apples in the UK emits a further 44.8 mL equivalent diesel burned.

In short, the study suggests that fresh apples in the UK cause the same emissions per apple as New Zealand apples shipped to the UK, but if the apples are kept in refrigerated storage then the UK apples have a worse impact on the climate.

One notable thing from this exercise is that when you buy a 20p apple at Tesco, you are also paying for about 15p of diesel that was burned to get it from the tree to you.

Climate Change

This week’s Economist cover is a graphic that describes the warming climate. Meanwhile this photo article from the Guardian (also this week) hit me emotionally. The climate is changing, and the effects are disturbing. Currently my approach is very ivory tower: observing and considering, but not actively campaigning. I have friends who are much more active in Green Political Parties and movements like Extinction Rebellion. I think it may be time to explore similar options. I could blog each week about climate change in an attempt to raise awareness, but I would be very surprised if any of my readers were unaware of the issues?

Mental Health

Last week my friend Jessy shared some insight from her time answering a crisis hotline (read on facebook or linkedin). At work we now have staff trained in mental health first aid. It is good to see mental health issues lose their stigma, even if it is a gradual process. I thought someone might find things I do to maintain good mental health useful.

Mental Health Tool kit
(or “Things I do that I think help me mentally”)
Have a plan: Be enrolled in a health care program, have a GP, speak to them about mental health. Know services in your area. Have hotlines in your contact list. (If you broke your leg or developed an odd growth you would know what to do, what if you broke your mind or developed an odd pattern of thoughts?)
Reflect: Write things down to get them out of your head. Write a couple words about how you feel each day somewhere. Notice if something keeps coming back. Even just putting information somewhere else helps me relax that I won’t forget it, so I can let it go even briefly.
Exercise: Match the mental stress with physical stress, release endorphins. “Get out of your mind by getting into your body”. Do something that makes you sweat for 10 minutes. Endorphins make you feel better. Matching the physical stress to your mental stress helps align how you feel. If you are physically worn out, you will sleep.
Sleep: Get good sleep. Put distractions far away. Passing out from alcohol is not sleep.
Eat Clean: Sugary oily foods (fast foods) taste great but make you feel terrible. You also know that they are bad for you so you feel guilty. Eating well makes you feel better.
Control: Organise your room. Go somewhere you want to (ideally under your own power like walking or cycling). You have so much freedom and power. Remind yourself of this by using it.
Breathe: Slow your breathing. Count four on the way in, hold for four, count four on the way out, hold for four, repeat until you don’t remember how long you’ve been trying this.
Mindfulness: Take some time to practice mindfulness (this is a skill that I can’t explain in a couple sentences, but I’d recommend trying the free sessions on Headspace).
Unplug: Go offline. You don’t need technology to survive. Switch off. Leave smart devices behind. Even leave your watch behind to lose track of time. Just be.

Purdue Pharma

On Monday Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy. Opiates are incredibly useful and powerful drugs, but are also addictive. The US over prescribed them, peaking at 81.2 prescriptions per 100 persons in 2010-2012. Those prescriptions and subsequent addictions and addiction related deaths are linked to the marketing of OxyContin in many lawsuits against Purdue Pharma. For a humorous take on a dire situation, see John Oliver (April 2019).

Quirks of Academia

A high school student in Australia recently published in a mathematics journal, and it made the news. I have read some slightly bitter comments along the lines of “so what”. There is a lot of pressure inside academia to publish papers (a metric of performance) and seeing a relatively simple result gain media coverage can inspire envy.

Tumbling down the rabbit hole led me to this (now defunct) blog, poking fun at Mary M Tai’s paper and claim to have developed a new method for finding the area under curves. That method may actually be over 2000 years old. That paper has 363 citations today (another metric of academic performance). I found this funny.

Photo from the Week

Some late nights in the lab have let me share runs with the wildlife of Oxford.

2019 Week 37: Bottles, Birds, Blunders, and Bumper Cars.

Short version: Plastic is everywhere, but it doesn’t make you sick. There are some familiar bird sounds at the new physics building. An honest apology keeps me involved. Oxford’s St Giles Fair returns.

Long version:

Plastic in Water

I woke up from a dream this week thinking about the amount of plastic particles humanity has introduced into the environment. The disturbing reality is that just as we have added enormous amounts of plastic to the ocean so too have we added plastic to the water we drink and the food we eat, and hence to ourselves. Plastic has been falling out of popularity, with campaigns to reduce the use of plastic in supermarkets, and bans of plastic drinking straws in the US. It is relatively rare that organic molecules become well known, but BPA (a monomer for poly-carbonate) has attracted sufficient controversy to become a household acronym (particularly when followed by the word “free”).

Ultimately, however, a reason plastic is so ubiquitous is probably also a reason it is relatively harmless: plastics are fairly inert. They don’t break down easily, and so similarly don’t get broken down or absorbed by the body easily. This study found worryingly that Chinese infants’ exposure to BPA is 10x higher than that of adults, but also found that these levels of exposure pose little risk to health.

There is a fairly comprehensive and recent report from the World Health Organisation, which similarly concludes that plastic is everywhere, but there is not evidence that it is causing harms to health. It does suggest the need for further investigation into possible health effects, and that plastic waste management needs to be improved.

Interesting to me was that while browsing this topic, I came across the website “plasticsmakeitpossible“, produced by the American Chemical Council, which in turn is made up of some pretty large companies. I’ve not delved much into how established corporations sway public opinion at arms length, and I think it would be interesting to discuss websites like “plasticsmakeitpossible” in a future blog post.

Bird Calls

This week while waiting outside the Clarendon Laboratory, I heard the strangely familiar sound of Kookaburras coming from the new physics building (the Beecroft Building). My first thought is that the birds were being kept nearby for study, but after hearing the exact same pattern of calls (recording below) I realised it was being played on a loud speaker. My guess is that it is to deter real birds from nesting/resting on the new building, but I could not find any details of this system from the architects website. The sounds do not play at regular intervals so I suspect some sort of motion sensors are involved.

Apologies

I recently received an email from a study explaining that a large amount of valuable data had been deleted. It must have been tempting to try to blame the system or a fault in the technology, but this individual took ownership of their mistake (essentially having pressed the wrong buttons), and I found myself with more trust in them as a result.

This event is also a useful reminder to implement good data management processes, including backups of irreplaceable data and some sort of delay mechanism for the permanent deletion of data.

St Giles Fair

Oxford hosts the St Giles Fair on the Monday and Tuesday following the first Sunday in September. For at least 200 years the central streets of Oxford have been closed to make way for stalls and rides, and strolling through the rides, games, and food stalls is becoming a tradition for me as well.

Photos from the Week