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.
In my new role as a People Growth Engineer, I am decoupled from the schedule of experimental science. Any loss of productive time is now on me, and it has been revealing. The single biggest reason I waste time is because I feel negative emotions, and want something to distract from that. The negative emotions I most feel are variations on fear: fear that I am not good enough (insecurities) fear of failure, fear of losing the respect of my peers (embarrassment). It is easy to set aside my emotions briefly, but I also have behaviours that reveal the underlying feelings; being too abrasive in my answers to questions, eating when I am not hungry, looking for validation in my training statistics. In order to truly not waste time, I have to feel confident enough to enjoy what I am doing, but not so confident that I blindly make mistakes. For now, I can focus on the idea that simply by being less afraid, I can waste less time, I can improve, and so I will have less to fear.
The Price of Oil
On 20 April 2020 a futures contract for crude oil traded at -$40.32 a barrel (a negative value). That is not an intuitive event, and some explanation can be found in this article. One note that stood out is that Andy Hall, a “legendary oil trader” says of the oil prices “I do still watch it every day”. It resonates with some of what I have been reading about how necessary obsessive habits are for world-class performance.
In my feed this week was 68-bits-of-unsolicited-advice from Kevin Kelly on his 68th birthday. They vary from trifling “Don’t trust all-purpose glue” to historic “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” to more profound ideas like “Anything real begins with the fiction of what could be. Imagination is therefore the most potent force in the universe, and a skill you can get better at. It’s the one skill in life that benefits from ignoring what everyone else knows.”. I found it a useful list to consider, and hope that should I see my 68th birthday, I will have useful ideas to share.
When the Editor-in-Chief of The Economist described her illustrator as “Stakhanovite”, I learnt a new word for “an exceptionally hard working or productive person”. This BBC article summarises the story of Alexei Stakhanov.
Photo from the Week – Daisies
I’ve been shifting my routine earlier in the day, which is treating me well. Among more significant advantages, a small bonus was discovering that daisies unfurl in the morning to greet the sun, and later learning that they move to track it through the sky.
This week I have had more autonomy in how I allocate my time at work. While I enjoyed the freedom, it also created expectations to perform. I might aspire to a stoic determination around ideas of “never complain, never give excuses”, but having actual excuses be removed increases the pressure I feel to deliver.
Caterpillars in Shotover
On the recommendation of a friend I ran in Shotover Country Park this weekend (see Photos from the Week below). The trails are well kept and soft under foot. There is a good variety of long steady climbs, short punchy climbs, and beautiful flat sections, great for all manner of training. There were also thousands of small (1 cm or so) caterpillars hanging from trees which I was inevitably coated in. Curious, I turned to the scientific literature and found a comprehensive description of this behaviour in the appropriately named journal Animal Behaviour. As it turns out, this is a defence mechanism to avoid predators (stink bugs and wasps). When the caterpillars detect the vibrations their predators make when hunting nearby, they dangle themselves from silk threads to escape being eaten. Interestingly they can differentiate the vibrations of wasps and stink bugs (two predators), and dangle further (30 cm) for wasps than the less adept stink bugs (only 10 cm of dangling). Not only did the study record and artificially replicate the vibrations caused by the predators to confirm this, they also measured that the extra dangling significantly increased survival in response to the wasps, but was not needed for the stink bugs. Science is awesome. Unfortunately for these caterpillars, the extra dangling also made them much more likely to become unwilling passengers on my run. Good pictures of them in this tweet.
Short Observations on Social Pressure
I remember being taught about peer pressure at school. Usually the intention was that if children are aware of what is motivating them to do something the teacher or parent thinks is negative, that they will be less likely to behave in that way. I would like to think that I’ve become more aware since I was a child, and yet peer pressure still nudges me to make bad choices. I was tagged in a run by a friend as part of a “5k for the NHS challenge”. He ran under 20 minutes and, being competitive, I wanted to beat that time. It is something that I feels possible, but would require a more intense change of pace than what seems reasonable given my current training. I really felt pressure, for about 10 days, to go out and try and run a sub 20 5k, which would have been a mistake. With other more significant pressures in my life at the moment, it is interesting to note that such a trivial (and well meaning) nudge to perform can cause such an emotional burden.
Of course the other side of this is that I was motivated to give £5 to the NHS. I have often been cynical about runners raising money for charity: the run seems so unnecessary, even costly, as the event costs could also go to the charitable cause. Fun runs do align with some causes, as exercise reduces susceptibility to cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, but in general it seems contrived to me. I must concede though, that had I not been nudged to donate via Strava, I would not have donated that £5. From this single point of data, it has been effective.
Stuff I’m reading at the moment
Measure What Matters by John Doerr, and Leading by Alex Ferguson and Michael Moritz. I am hoping to get some summarised thoughts out soon.
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.
This has been another week of excitement, exhilaration, and exhaustion while working on SARS-CoV-2 projects at ONI. Doing experiments directly related to the pandemic is motivating, and I have noted that I find it easier to work 80-100 hour weeks on this project than 60-70 hours weeks on previous projects. I am very thankful to work with such an inspiring team, as well as to live with supportive friends. In the fourth week of this project, the sustained effort is also made possible by prioritising good diet, regular exercise, and making time for reflection and meditation.
While my week is dominated by the pandemic, I’ll share three moments unrelated to COVID-19. As I was drafting this post, I had a failure of discipline and did not get it out on time. I shared my new job title on LinkedIn. I attended an online interactive performance of The Tempest.
Practise Finishing or Practise Failing
The problem: This post is a day late. I am disappointed, having managed to deliver on time for the past several weeks, and I felt the resulting introspection was worth sharing. I had enough time to write when I returned home on Sunday evening, but found myself falling into bad habits of procrastination I had hoped were gone. Surprisingly, the lack of resolve came not after a day of exhaustion, but one of relaxation. A day of Easter feasting, an absence of physical training, and only minimal experimental accomplishments left me lacking confidence to express my thoughts. When I could have been writing, I squandered time to distractions like YouTube and chess, sacrificing both a timely post and precious sleep.
A potential solution: I have noticed a psychological benefit from completing 30-60 minutes of intensive indoor rowing. There are several points (usually at around 7 minutes and 20 minutes in) during these efforts where the temptation is to give up and stop rowing. The spartan rhythm of the exercise, and the absence of visual stimulation, are a backdrop for a battle between falling to weakness of will or building strength of discipline. I have found that days where I see the piece to the end, I am not only rewarded with exercise-induced endorphins and the satisfaction of completing the session, but also I find it is easier to see other tasks in my day to completion. Likewise, if I quit before finishing, it makes failing other tasks more likely. Either practising pushing through pain, or practising giving up when things are hard, reinforces the behaviour. Knowing this, I can focus on succeeding in the present moment, spurred on by recognising it will make the right choice easier in future. This knowledge also feeds into setting appropriate goals: goals which are impossible guarantee falling into a negative feedback loop.
Where else I want to apply this: There are many brief moments through the day when I could learn a little, or train a little, or communicate better, or help someone. Sometimes I make the right choice, but often I throw that moment away in favour of consuming easy content (e.g. checking sales at an online store) or narcissistically checking for “likes” on social media. I should recognise that by building better habits around these moments, I will find it easier to do the better things. A little discomfort now is worth the behavioural change in the end.
People Growth Engineer
This week I announced my new job title as “People Growth Engineer”. Given the current pandemic related work, I am still applying my skills in the laboratory, but eventually the role will see me focus on the people of ONI rather than wet bench experiments. I am excited at the opportunity to contribute in a new way, driving growth throughout the organisation. I like that the unique title reflects my own passion for a scientific approach to continual learning and personal development. Specifically, the growth I will be engineering for ONI exists in three overlapping areas: 1. Growing the team through identifying the right people to join ONI. 2. Growing existing ONIees (ONIemployees) through individual skill development. 3. Cultivating a culture and fostering a common mindset that allow us to achieve our mission. More detail to come as I transition into the role.
Over the long weekend I attended Creation Theatre’s performance of The Tempest via Zoom. I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction with the audience and actors, and the fun retelling through modern technology. Initially I was sceptical about setting aside time in this busy period for a play, but the life and laughter I took away from it gave me more joy than I would have expected from any other down-time. The actors involved the audience as Ariel’s spirits, acting out Prospero’s magic. Seeing other audience members on their web-cameras provided a good substitute for in person socialising in this time of social distancing. The humour could be a little cringe worthy at times, but taking Shakespeare playfully feels both authentic to the spirit of the comedy and makes supposedly high culture more accessible.
Oxford has grown quieter under the current lock-down. Government guidelines still allow for outdoor exercise, and so I have continued to run to and from the lab. The photos from the week capture some beautiful moments from these runs.
Children’s COVID-19 E-book A friend has written a children’s book on COVID-19, which you can download here. The link is also soliciting donations which will go to support medical charities fighting the pandemic.
Theory of Everything (2014) I’ve had this on my “to watch” list for a couple years. It focuses on the relationship between cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane through his scientific ascension and physical decline. I enjoyed the theatrical sets; the narrow blackboard-walled room where Penrose introduces black holes, the cold hospital where Hawking is diagnosed with ALS, and the sandstone quads and bridges of Cambridge. The relationship between Stephen and Jane is complicated by two love triangles involving Jonathan (who joins the family as friend and carer) and Elaine (a nurse to Stephen who became his second wife). However, when the real Jane says “There were four of us in our marriage“, rather than four people she is referring to Physics and ALS as the other two partners. I felt that the film prioritised the romantic tension between the characters over the more difficult to portray relationship vs career tension created by extreme devotion to physics, resulting in a compelling but less accurate story. The portrayal of scientists relies on Oxbridge archetypes and falls short of the political nuance of Contact (1997), one of my favourite films. For example, in a letter to Astronomy & Geophysics Adrian L Melott points out the missed opportunity to depict Dennis Sciama as a skilled mentor. You can watch the trailer via YouTube.
It has been an intense week. I am in the lab most waking hours working on COVID-19 projects. To make consecutive long days viable, I prioritise hard exercise in down time as I find it helps keep my health (physical and mental) in a good place. My efforts are only possible because the team at ONI is so supportive, be they working beside me at the bench, in the machine shop on the other side of the building, or coordinating supplies from home. It has been exhilarating to be part of a sudden surge in scientific effort, and I have found the wider scientific community to be universally selfless in their willingness to help.
Things to share this week
COVID-19 Again the media is dominated by discussion of the pandemic. I feel torn about adding to that noise, but my thoughts are now focused on that topic and primarily this blog is where I share what I am thinking about. I continue to be concerned that major media outlets, driven by the need to sell advertising clicks, are tasking journalists without the right medical literacy to create content without much consideration for how useful that content is. My suggestion remains: read from sources that specialise in the area, ignore conventional news coverage of the pandemic. A starting point: WHO Coronavirus Homepage Check with your local health services: US CDC, European CDC, UK NHS, Australia Department of Health. Journals for in depth scientific content: The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, BMJ, and Nature.
My (uninformed) thoughts In Week 11 I was not worried. In Week 12 I was hit by exponential whiplash. My resolve is being tested as governments take economies into lock down and hospitals become overrun. In my note on death I commented that although only 5000 had died at the time of writing, the final toll would likely be in the millions. I take no joy in that prospect and I hope I will be proven wrong. That said, I also feel that stating “millions will die” without the context of the millions who already die each year incites fear beyond the reality of the situation. I stand by the importance of seeing this crisis in the context of others happening simultaneously, e.g. climate change, tropical disease, and obesity. We humans have an incredible power to see into the future, but such a limited desire to take the actions the future tasks us with. This pandemic makes me feel that only when the danger is close in space and time are we spurred to act, and this is something I wish I could change.
Collaboration Nature is running a podcast “Coronapod” and the sentiments from the start of this week’s post are echoed about 15 minutes in; scientists are coming together to help each other.
Hoarding There are reports that the UK is holding £1bn in food that was purchased as the COVID-19 situation became serious. While that is enough to leave me seeing shortages of flour and dry pasta on shelves, a quick division makes that number £15 per person, which means only a little extra spending over a week of “stocking up” can push the complex supply chain of fast moving consumer goods beyond its limits. This small change in perspective makes me feel less frustrated; an average family doubling up on their weekly shop seems foolish but understandable, compared with imagining panicked people filling their cars with pasta and toilet paper. Especially in Britain (where baking is a hobby as much as a source of nutrition) flour stocks could easily sell out as people newly working from home find the opportunity to bake. Furthermore, knowing that the system is tuned so finely to match regular demand makes me feel there is less waste than I had previously intuited. (Side note; in googling for articles on this I came across this guide to how supermarkets nudge you to spend more).
Since I wrote last week about the pandemic, putting it in the context of other global health issues, the total fatalities due to COVID-19 have more than doubled, and major European economies have essentially halted. I had some awareness of the likely rate of spread, but was not anticipating how events have played out, and so count myself among those hit by “exponential whiplash”:
“a cognitive phenomenon that sars-cov-2, the virus which causes covid-19, has been provoking around the world: exponential whiplash. Knowing in principle that something may take only a few days to double in size does little to prepare you for the experience of being continually behind the ever-steepening curve such doubling creates.” The Economist
I shared on LinkedIn this week that ONI is working on research to support the fight against COVID-19 and since Wednesday my productive energy has been focused there. Like many businesses across the UK, a majority of ONI’s staff are working from home, but my skills let me keep working on new projects directly related to SARS-CoV-2. It is exciting and rewarding to be able to do so, but it is also sapping time and energy from my usual pursuits. Given that, I have only a few incomplete thoughts to share:
Things to share this week
Proximity bias It is noticeable to me that these deaths are causing so much more economic and social pressure than the deaths by the causes I listed last week. I guess it is because these deaths are more proximate to wealthy societies, which have won huge victories against infectious diseases. Combined with the panicked behaviour I note below, I feel most people demonstrate they do not find all lives are equally valuable, even though they might espouse that value.
Pandemics vs. Climate Catastrophe Something I’m thinking about: if society knew that these radical measures were necessary to prevent a much larger disaster much further away, would we be able to make the same cuts on air travel, entertainment, and consumption? Could we reinvent our way of life to prevent deaths from climate change, without anyone needing to die first?
Some people are panicking I am hearing first hand accounts of stockpiling from both Australia and the UK; supermarket shelves being emptied despite no larger issues on the supply side. A friend had toilet paper snatched out of her shopping cart. There has been a spike in gun sales in the US. It saddens me to see people act out of fear, and with so much selfishness. I wonder if it is merely a lack of understanding, or a symptom of a more fundamental social focus on individuals vs. collectives.
Some people are too relaxed I was very surprised to see stories in my twitter feed of crowds flocking to climb Mt. Snowdon and filling out beaches in Florida and Bondi. While I am feeling relaxed when it comes to my personal safety, wider compliance with public health directives such as social distancing are needed for those policies to be effective (see also vaccines).
Misleading headlines make me angry Please take care of the media you engage with. I generally feel positive about coverage from the guardian, but headlines like Australian man, 36, diagnosed with coronavirus dies in Iceland are deceptive. It is designed to grab your curiosity (or fear) about the pandemic, and clearly implies that the Australian man was killed by COVID-19. The disease is most lethal in older people, so a younger person dying is notable. But the reality brought by the third sentence is:
“While he was found to be infected with the coronavirus, it is unlikely to have been the cause of his death,” epidemiologist Dr Thorolfur Gudnason,
I.e. an accurate headline is “Australian man, 36, dies in Iceland of unknown causes whilst infected with coronavirus”. This is a problem; in a media saturated landscape many will scroll past the headline in a feed, and it will add to anxiety needlessly.
Harvard Medical Students COVID-19 Curriculum A friend passed on this resource, which I think provides a good balance of brevity and comprehensiveness on the disease.