2019 Week 14: Global Travel

Short version: I travelled from Oxford to Sydney and back within a week. That is incredible, but sadly places huge costs on the environment.

Long version:

Planetary Commute

Antipodes
This week I needed to be in Sydney for one day. To make the round trip in a week, about half the time is spent varyingly on flights and in airports. This left plenty of time to marvel at how trivial it now is to travel around the entire planet. Sydney is close to being on the opposite side of the planet (the antipode) to Oxford, so the total journey of 16,983 km is not far off the maximum distance two points can be from each other on the surface of the earth (approximately 20,000 km). Interestingly that antipodal distance is slightly less than half the 40,075 km equatorial circumference, due to the deformations in the shape of the earth. I was unable to easily find an exact calculation of the furthest two points on earth, due to errors in the data set, and the ever changing shape of the planet.

Kangaroo Route
When the British set out to colonise Australia, the trip took took 252 days. That trip can now be done commercially in less than 25 hours. (I had a longer layover that brought it closer to 30 hours). The magazine Air & Space recounts the history of this London to Sydney “Kangaroo route”.

Jet lag
Drastic changes in timezone leave an effect on the body. The NHS points out “There’s no treatment for jet lag“, but it does give helpful advice, such as attempting to move your sleep/wake cycle in sync earlier. While searching for papers on jet lag I found one on social jet lag and student performance that mines university logins. I found the charts classifying students based on chronotype interesting.

Fuel Efficiency and Carbon Impact
Passengers in a 747-400 have a fuel efficiency of about 3.1 L/100 km vs 10 L/100 km for cars. So a car with three people and a typical flight have the same carbon impact over the same distance. Thus my out and back journey consumed about 1000 L of fuel, producing 2500 kg of carbon dioxide. This is similar to the carbon emissions for a year of either eating a 75g hamburger per day, or heating a UK home.

Airborne Population (Fermi Problem)

With increasing demand and decreasing costs of air transport, at any point in time there is a proportion of the population on flights. Three ways of estimating this population:

Extrapolate from a single data point
If I assume everyone flies as frequently as I do (2 days per year, and multiply by the approximately 7 billion population on earth, that gives 14 billion flying days. Dividing this by the days in a year gives about 400,000,000 airborne people at any given time. Intuitively seems very high; it reflects my financial privilege that I fly much more than the average person.

Make a set of intuitive assumptions
Taking the following rough guesses: 1. all the flying is done by the wealthiest billion people 2. for every million of these people there is an airport where 3. a flight takes off every 15 minutes, 4. those flights last two hours, and 5. seat 500 people.
Calculations: (flight duration = 2 hours) ÷ (flight frequency = 0.25 hours) × (airports = 1000) × (passengers per flight = 500) = 4,000,000 airborne people at any time. This result seems more realistic, and fits intuitions that very large cities of many millions tend to have multiple airports, or large airports with multiple runways. Flights might run longer, but also less frequently over the night. Some large aircraft can carry more than 500, but are fewer and travel longer routes.

Use one highly relevant fact
Looking up a key fact, that there are 700,000,000,000 Revenue Passenger Kilometres flown per month, and knowing that the cruising speed for jets is about 900 km/h. Allows the simple calculations (distance travelled per month) ÷ (speed) ÷ (hours per month) gives an approximation of 1,000,000 airborne people at any time.

General Notes
Time of day and season would cause the actual number to vary significantly with time. Particularly peak travel periods around regional holidays (e.g. Thanksgiving, Diwali, Chinese New Year).

Photo from the Week

An Airbus A330-243 in Chengdu China, the layover on my journey to Sydney.

2019 Week 13: Tech

Short version: Technology is amazing. Cycling can be dangerous.

Long version:

Scientific Tech

Technology is amazing, and as a scientist I am very lucky to work with some of the latest, most advanced, and highest tech machines that exist. Sharing that excitement can be difficult however, as being able to measure with very high precision is not a particularly visual phenomenon. Manipulating the protein and nucleic acid building blocks of life is challenging and rewarding, but ultimately happens in drops of water that, to the naked eye, are indistinguishable to those from a mundane context.

Occasionally I have given tours of laboratories, and often I feel the equipment and materials present must be underwhelming to the visitor. The reality of science, when compared with science fiction, requires the machines we use to be simple, robust, and compatible with the rest of the lab. For example, transparent equipment with bright flashing lights is great for setting up interesting shots in a movie, but when experimental conditions need to be carefully controlled, simple refrigerator-like boxes are often the better solution.

The prevalence of powerful modern technology means that what is captivating tends to be a common phenomenon presented in an unusual context. Glowing materials can be striking (and an inaccurate representation of nuclear radiation in cinema) since most objects do not naturally emit (visible) light (at standard temperatures), but emission of light is a pretty routine phenomenon (you’re reading this on a glowing screen). In the context of the lab, a fluorescent tube or a glow stick might seem to have some high tech implication, but in an office or a disco, they are common. Similarly it is often a climactic point in a characters mastery of magical powers to lift an object with their mind, but a forklift or crane is somehow much less the substance of fantasy.

A few particularly exciting instruments I’ve had the privilege to work with:

Consumer Tech

I enjoy consumer technology, and fondly recall walking the cavernous trade show floor at CES. The sheer volume of sales of consumer devices helps to dilute the cost of design work, both in physical hardware and in virtual interfaces. The result is that the aesthetic experience of using a consumer device is often significantly better than that of a technologically more advanced scientific device. Youtubers like Lisa Gade, Marques Brownlee, and Dave Lee share the experience of the latest consumer devices, but I often feel conflicted watching such video. While fun, such content feeds into unnecessary marketing driven consumption that I is a social and environmental blight. I also find sports gadgetry a compelling source of procrastination, e.g. DcRainmaker‘s blog.

Safe Cycling

In March while cycling I was involved in a collision on the way to work. Luckily I came away with only very minor injuries. It is a useful reminder that there are risks to using the roads, and that those risks can be minimised. Three thoughts:

Have your kit in order:
Wear a helmet. Large meta-studies say they help. Doctors in emergency departments have told me they help. Bicycle helmets have saved me from major head injuries at least three times. Making sure they fit is important. After damage replace them.
Check that your brakes are working and work well, and practise stopping hard, especially in difficult conditions like downhill or in the wet.
Wear visible clothing. You need to be seen.

Ride like you are invisible:
Even when wearing high visibility clothing and using lights, it should be assumed that cars cannot see you. Even in cities where cycling is less common, drivers might only be looking out for cars and miss cyclists, something that’s particularly common when waiting to turn across traffic. Cars have a physical structure that can create blind spots. Many drivers are distracted by phones or passengers, especially when travelling at lower speeds or through slow moving traffic. Ultimately, the risks you take by assuming you will be seen by other cars can be minimised, even if it ought to be the responsibility of the drivers.

Organ Donation:
If you lost your life in an accident today, I would be devastated. But a sad day is worse if someone else misses their chance to live because we didn’t submit a trivial form. Please sign up to be an organ donor: Australians UK USA

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 12: Video Games

Short version: Playing video games has been a formative experience for me, which makes it a complicated topic to write about. Also: I ran a marathon this week.

Long version:

Introduction:

I have spent hundred of hours immersed in virtual worlds, which is a fairly common but not universal experience. More recently I have not been playing games at all. It was only on trying to write this that I realised this fairly radical shift has been largely unexamined by me.

This post started from a dinner conversation where I found myself in an extended monologue trying to convey the variety of experiences accessible through video games to friends who were unfamiliar. These past weeks I’ve discovered the sheer volume of ideas I’d like to share about video games, and so I suspect this will be a topic I will need to revisit. The History of Video Games wikipedia page is over 16,000 words and barely mentions a specific title.

What are video games?

An attempt at definition would be a good place to start. Format seems the most obvious identifying feature: video games are games which, in some way, involve interaction with electronically generated video. In a world where powerful handheld computers are ubiquitous, I assume most people have had some interaction with video games. It is a broad category, with a range of experiences from digital versions of traditional board games and card games to much more complex virtual worlds.

Why I find it so hard to write about video games:

Ultimately, I struggle to feel my writing does justice to the complexity of the experience of playing video games. I tried formally studying video games by taking a course during my undergraduate years. It was helpful, but it was also ultimately unsatisfying. A large part of this were flaws in my attitude, an undeserved intellectual arrogance I have yet to fully overcome. Still, I feel that a stigma associated with video games as a form of art is that they are simplistic, culturally insignificant in the same way as popular children’s fiction might be. This conflicts with my personal experience with video games as being emotionally and artistically significant.

Why I play video games:

Stimulation
From the rapid flashing of a classic arcade game to the cinematography of a more plot driven experience, video games captivate. Most obviously this is observed in the iphone becoming a pocket sized babysitter to modern parents. Video games hold attention, and particularly fast paced shooters and platformers provide excitement and speed.

Puzzles, Strategy, and Problem Solving
Strategy games like Civilisation, Total War, and Age of Empires fill the gap between chess and history, asking players to take control of armies, factions, or even nations. Games like Portal provide more fast paced puzzle solving from a first person perspective. Overall these games give a more cerebral satisfaction: you feel smart when you win.

Narrative
Later editions of games like Final Fantasy have been accused of containing more non-interactive video than actual gameplay. Games like Bioware’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age contain dozens of hours of voice acting. While role playing games are designed to tell a story, some first person shooters such as Bioshock Infinite and Half Life have also elicited strong emotions.

Escapism, Perfectionism, Rules
Beyond these, video games provide worlds to lose yourself in. While a book or a TV show often leaves the audience dreaming about an alternate universe, it does not fully immerse you in the same way as a video game can. Dangerously, it is possible to play a game perfectly. Ultimately these worlds are constructed, and save points and the limits of the medium make perfection possible in a game in a way it cannot be in reality. This is perhaps the distinction between the virtual and the real that I have most struggled with.

Some things I want to share about gaming other than games:

The Smash Brothers Documentary: a 4 hour insight into the competitive community around the Nintendo game Super Smash Bros. Melee.

ASU English Professor James Paul Gee talks about video games and a theory of learning.

There Will Be Brawl, a gritty film noir series based in the Super Smash Bros universe.

Pure Pwnage a mocumentary about gaming with plenty of truth.

Some significant video games:

Starcraft: a real time strategy game, hugely influential in esports, notably being broadcast on television in South Korea to millions of fans.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: A highly acclaimed role playing game.

Counter-Strike: an extremely popular first person shooter.

Also this list of games ‘included on at least six separate “best/greatest of all time” lists’.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 11: Communication

Short version: This week is pretty heavy on personal reflection. I have struggled to keep in regular contact with friends, but recently have been improving. Some other thoughts on communicating, social media, and socialising in general.

Long version:

Personal Reflection

Broadly, my priorities in life are
1. Maintaining good mental and physical health,
2. Relationships,
3. Science (my academic and career pursuits), and
4. Hobbies.
Relationships are the area where I struggle most to allocate time effectively.

Having worked to stop setting unrealistic expectations in my academic pursuits, I can see the same harmful perfectionist tendencies in how I approach my relationships. I want all my interactions to be substantive, prompt, and to take up no time. This is simply not possible. Quick responses are necessarily glib. Writing something meaningful takes time and so cannot be prompt. This inherent time investment provides an excuse to delay, which breeds guilt at leaving messages piling up in a variety of inboxes. Then avoiding this uncomfortable guilt leads to avoiding the messages that ought to be a source of joy. In turn this means I set higher expectations on what I might communicate to make up for the ever growing delays. Occasionally I do set time for keeping in touch where longer phone calls or letters are produced, but these sporadic moments can end up being several months apart.

Not being able to exercise control over who I keep in touch with and when, I fall prey to biasing proximate interactions, even if they are less significant to me. This is exacerbated by finding it hard to say no, and generally being hungry for appreciation and approval. Thus these happenstance interactions can fulfil some of my social needs, whilst leading me to neglect people I would better enjoy sharing time with.

This week I’ve been reaching out to old friends, and it has been an anxious but rewarding experience. I’ve found with the people I’m closest to, months or even years go by and on meeting again we fall back into the same conversational flow as if it had only been a handful of days. I’d like to think this is the nature of strong relationships, though it is possible the causation is reversed; being poor at keeping in touch it is only people who hold relationships this way that I am able to successfully keep as friends. I do think that there is some underlying connection that is a source of mutual happiness and kinship, even if left dormant for an extensive period.

In short, these days it is rare that my truly closest friends are physically closest to me, and that has really revealed how important it is to take control of my social interactions. I think it’s worth noting as well that I’ve made very fulfilling connections here in Oxford, and that whilst my thinking can often be based around binary extremes, allowing circumstance to lead to making new friends is also incredibly rewarding.

Social Media

Purpose:
Facebook’s mission statement reads “Founded in 2004, Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.” The world’s most popular social networking site has not handled its user’s data particularly well. I would intuit that with advertising as the main source of revenue for facebook, their internal focus is to get users to spend more time on the platform. That clash of purposes has become more clear as regulators become increasingly skeptical of tech giants, but I think there is also a clash of purposes in the minds of users, and therein lies the source of so much social media related unhappiness.

Addiction:
This week Casey Neistat “quit” social media as he found “an hour and forty six minutes a day … a significant amount of my day is spent on that mindless scrolling”. I certainly have shared that sentiment, mostly regarding reddit. Endless scrolling is a bad habit I’ve mostly overcome, by taking note to myself of why I am looking at my phone or PC before I use it, and then to only use it for that purpose and put it away. Ultimately, as much as reddit can feed my curiosity, entertain me, and create a sense of community through comments, it is simply an aggregator of content that I would be better consuming from the source.

Blogging

This blog began as a way to provide insight into me for prospective employers or academic mentors. Having happily found those relationships at ONI, it seems to have morphed into my place to share thoughts.

Keep in touch!

If this (or any one of my blog posts) sparks a thought you’d like to share, or if you think I’ve got something terribly wrong, or if you think there’s something I need to read/watch/listen to; start a conversation! You can leave a comment when viewing an individual post by clicking on the title of the post (I realise this is not at all intuitive and will think about a better way to make comments accessible). You could write me an email, or find me on facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or just find me and say hi!

Photos from the Week

Spring is bringing flowers to Oxford’s streets. I bought some cheese.

2019 Week 10: Fitness in Science

Short version: I grew up thinking science-y people weren’t fit, but there is plenty of fitness in science, and scientific reasons to keep fit. I share some thoughts on anatomy, metrics, protein powder, and astronauts.

Long version:

Personal Observations

I remember thinking of exercise as inherently a waste of time; why would you ever want to run in circles and just end up at the same place? I’m sure this was in part informed by the media I consumed growing up; portraying the stereotypical nerd as being interested in mathematics, science, technology, along with a lack of physical fitness (also, in retrospect, portraying very fit people as not particularly bright). I identified with those archetypes and spurned exercise through much of school, as did many of my peers. It was later in life that I realised improving cardiovascular endurance was important to health. Starting to run I discovered the joy of Runner’s High. A competitive mindset and an internship in an anti-doping laboratory led me to build regular exercise into my routine, something I’ve enjoyed maintaining for the past few years.

Athletes’ Anatomy

Athletes setting world records are obviously different from the norm. Skill, dedication, talent, training, and genetics all contribute. I find conversations about athletes success tend to drift towards the genetic element, perhaps the intrigue is due to the allure of quantifying potential, or perhaps it provides a comforting fatalism for the undertrained. Most likely it is interesting simply because it is poorly understood compared with the simplicity of regular training or perceptible skill.

David Epstein gave a TED talk in 2014 where he shared a number of facts about the nature of athletes’ physicality. It particularly stood out to me that a transition in sport occurred (in parallel with the rise of broadcast media) from favouring a generalist body type of average proportions, to a plurality of extremes. One of the most memorable statistics is that Hicham El Guerrouj and Michael Phelps, who differ in height by 17 cm, have the same length legs (running advantages longer legs proportional to height, whereas swimming is the opposite). These characteristics are difficult to change: no amount of training will allow these two to exchange their body type. Training can however alter different aspects of the body to similar extremes.

Physiological adaptations from training can be as radical as the size difference between NBA basketball players and Olympic gymnasts. Specifically, athletes’ hearts really are significantly bigger than those of the untrained population (particularly endurance athletes). The body responds to stress, and the process of repeated exertion to influence adaptations that increase performance for a given activity is the basis of all training. When I worked in anti-doping an office legend described a cycling team that, in the days before blood doping was banned or effectively enforced, would need to sleep with heart rate monitors that would wake them if their heart rate got too low for fear of their hearts stopping altogether.

Marathon Times and Personal Metrics

I’m pretty motivated by quantifiable goals. Either arbitrary times (usually round numbers) or achieving a certain relative performance (e.g. placing in the top 1%). This paper examining marathon finishing times suggests I’m not alone. Times tend to bunch below “whole numbers” such as 3 hours and 4 hours, as well as smaller bunching observed across 5 minute increments, as people dig a little deeper to get below their goal times.

Links:
More statistics on half marathons and marathons. BAA Marathon and Half-Marathon results with the code shown. (I would like to be able to code informative charts like this.)

Protein Powder

The literature suggests that, when combined with training, protein supplementation increases gains in strength. I find that protein powder is a convenient way to add protein to my diet, particularly as a vegetarian. The NHS points out that the same benefits of protein powder can be achieved from other protein-rich foods, and that the lack of vitamins and nutrients of protein powder compare to a balanced meal make it a poor replacement for meals. It also recommends not exceeding intakes of 111 g per day for men or 90 g for women, which more or less concurs with the BMJ’s study suggesting the benefits of protein supplementation cease after 1.62 g/kg/day i.e. 120 g for a 75 kg person.

Importantly from an environmental perspective, looking at the World Resources Institute protein scorecard I wrote about in Week 4, dairy (from which whey protein is sourced) has the third highest impact, more than chicken and pork. Fortunately vegetable sources (i.e. pea protein) has a much lower footprint than conventional animal sources and pea protein is just as effective as whey protein in producing additional muscle growth.

That all said, there are good reasons to be skeptical of any benefit of supplementation at all beyond a healthy balanced diet. Trying to define a healthy balanced diet though could easily be several papers (or blog posts) by itself.

NASA Twin Study

I am eagerly awaiting the release of the integrated paper covering the NASA Twin Study. I suspect this will be the most intensive series of measurements made of any individual for some time. A brief summary by the Scientific American.

Photos from the Week: Solid water.

In the first photo, unusually clean ice traps dissolved gasses as they are forced out of solution. The second and third photos show Oxford’s spring weather variation.

2019 Week 9: Optimisation and Rowing

Short version: Life is full of metrics, and applying optimisation is useful, but be mindful of why not merely the how. Rowing is big in Oxford.

Long version:

Optimisation:

I can be a little obsessive about optimisation. I think it comes from doing a lot of mathematics. In the upcoming book The Metric Society, Steffen Mau describes a world where increasingly scores can be assigned to all aspects of life. I would guess the most common metrics people are concerned with are their bank balance and their weight, usually trying to maximise one and minimise the other. In everyday life I often find myself crunching numbers at the supermarket, aspiring to shave seconds off my running pace, cramming one extra experimental condition into the day. Is optimisation ultimately worth aspiring to? I’ve been reminded by friends this week that life isn’t always an optimisation problem. Optimisation can help me get faster, or spend more time at an art gallery, but it can’t tell me which one would make me happier, or is a more worthy way to spend time. I think it is important that I remember the ever growing pool of metrics are tools, rather than ends in themselves. More on this another week.

Rowing: Torpids 2019

This week the Isis in Oxford has been busy with the shouts and splashing of students rowing races. Oxford is relatively famous for its rowing. The Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge along the Thames attracted between 250,000 and 400,000 spectators in 2017. However unlike that race, or in Olympic rowing, the boats in this week’s races (known as Torpids) do not compete in parallel, but rather line up in sequence and chase one another.

Introduction to bumps racing:
Oxford is made up of many colleges which compete in, amongst other things, rowing. Since the main river through Oxford is narrow, and the race is contested by many boats (73 men’s boats and 61 women’s boats this week), it is not possible to race side by side. Instead they compete in divisions of 12 boats (13 boats per race including the top boat of the next lower division), with each boat starting simultaneously but separated by intervals of 130 feet. The aim of the first boat is to finish the course without being “bumped” by a boat further down the sequence, whilst all other boats are aiming to catch the next boat ahead. In Torpids specifically, once you “bump” (by overtaking, making physical contact, or the boat in front conceding) you leave the race, whilst the boat that has been bumped carries on. This protects the boat that achieved a bump from then being bumped in that race, even if the boat immediately behind would have eventually (or imminently) caught it. How this plays out is that in each race a boat usually only maintains its rank (known as rowing over), moves up one position (bumping), or moves down one position (is bumped), and so only the top four seeded boats meaningfully contest the position of top ranked boat (known as “head of the river”). Getting a bump on each of the four days is nearly always the best performance a crew can hope for, and is rewarded by “blades” (oars decorated with the names of the crew) being earned. Since a boat that has been bumped carries on rowing, it is possible to be bumped multiple times, and this is reflected in some pretty significant drops (e.g. Pembroke 2nd boat falling 8 places on the last day of racing). Further complicating the results calculations is that a boat that is bumped can continue on to bump, which is the only circumstance where a boat can gain multiple places. This creates the incredibly unlikely possibility that a boat can rise from the bottom of it’s division (the 13th boat) to the top (1st) in one race: only achieved by each boat bumping the one in front in the specific sequence of reverse order; 13 bumping 12, 12 bumping 11, and so on until having been bumped by 3, 2 then bumps 1. This would result in the boats then being ordered in reverse order to their starting order. Assuming then performances consistent with that first race, all boats would then proceed to row over (finish the course without being bumped). Notably this system of racing strongly encourages starting as hard as possible to catch the boat in front as early as possible.

Notable Performances of Torpids 2019:
Teddy Hall Men’s 1st boat were the highest seeded crew to get blades, gaining four places in Division 1, whilst GTC Women’s 1st boat also got blades in division 1, with an even more impressive 5 places gain. Brasenose Men’s 1st boat gained the most places on their path to blades at 7, while Hertford Men’s 2nd boat had the biggest fall of an impressive 14 places.

More details:
You can see the full results of Topids 2019 here. The full Rules of Racing are here. St Hugh’s Boat Club provide a Glossary of Rowing Terms here.

Upcoming Rowing Events:
Oxford and Cambridge compete again in London on Sunday 7th April 2019. Bumps are next being raced in Oxford on 29th May to 1st June 2019.

Other Rowing Stuff:
Australian Rowers Eat 25-30 MJ per day, British Rowing, Rowing Australia, RowingNZ,US Rowing.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 8: 2018 Altmetric Top 100

Short version: I write about the top 21 highest impact papers of 2018 according to Altmetric, a rank based on mentions in academic publications, news media, and social media. They mostly relate to health or the environment.

Long version:

Metrics and Rankings

It is interesting and useful, but difficult, to be able to compare the quality and impact of publications. There are many methods to quantify this, one of which is Altmetrics. This scores publications based on mentions in the news, on Facebook, in patents, and other sources which are tallied and weighted. Since it takes less time to write a tweet than a citing publication, Altmetrics respond much more quickly and reflect a much wider potential audience than more conventional measures, but for the same reasons are less accurate measures of quality.

My brief thoughts on the top 21 papers ranked by Altmetrics from 2018:

1. Mortality in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

The US centric nature of the metrics comes out clearly with the top ranked paper being about deaths in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. President Donald Trump was not good to Puerto Rico. The study measured 4645 excess deaths from 20th September 2017 to 31st December 2017, 70 times higher than the official toll of 64. Deeply disturbing.

2. The spread of true and false news online

Fake News travels faster online than truth . Words like clickbait, chainmail, and memes matter a lot more when presidential elections and lynch mobs become an issue. I am reminded of this early Tom Scott video about flash mobs.

3. Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016

I am disappointed to have missed this paper in Week 5. This article from The Lancet recommends the best level of alcohol to consume is none, finding alcohol causes deaths through tuberculosis, road injuries, self harm, and cancer. There are some clever methods used to look at measuring actual consumption by individuals, presented in maps on the third and fourth pages.

4. Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene

This is pretty grim. Describes the “Hothouse Earth” as “…a pathway that could not be reversed, steered, or substantially slowed”. Talk to people about climate change. Work out what you can do to minimise your impact. Katharine Hayhoe has a great facebook page that can help bridge the gap for climate change skeptics.

5. Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study

Exercise usually makes people feel better, and the biggest rewards occur going from none to some. While your brain does use a significant proportion of your daily energy expenditure, the rest of your body needs movement to function properly. This study quantifies that relationship with mental health, finding optimal benefits from sessions of about 45 minutes and 12 to 20 sessions per month.

6. Dietary carbohydrate intake and mortality: a prospective cohort study and meta-analysis

Studying nutrition is made difficult because the timescale of the effects you are trying to measure (over lifetimes) means that experiments are difficult to control. That said this study finds that ideally 50% of your energy intake should come from carbohydrates, and if you cut carbs, you should not supplement them with animal fats and protein, but go for plant based options.

7. Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic

Just because information is painful or disappointing, doesn’t mean it should be ignored. This paper described the exponential growth of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This SMBC comic is highly relevant.

8. Complementary Medicine, Refusal of Conventional Cancer Therapy, and Survival Among Patients With Curable Cancers

The death of Steve Jobs is a famous case of “Complementary and Alternative Medicine” demonstrating that brilliance in one area is not mutually exclusive with stupidity in another. This paper points out that cancer patients who opt into these unsubstantiated treatments are more likely to refuse more established medicine, and therefore are twice as likely to die. Relevant Tim Minchin beat poem.

9. Global warming transforms coral reef assemblages

The Great Barrier Reef is undergoing a series of bleaching events. While bleaching does not guarantee death, the longer the bleaching the harder it is for corals to recover. This study quantifies that relationship, and finds a nonlinear relationship where prolonged or intense heat results in rapidly increasing losses. More recently a million tonnes of sludge is to be dumped on the reef. The SMBC comic is still highly relevant.

10. The biomass distribution on Earth

The biomass of humans is approximately 10x that of all wild mammals, and half that of livestock. Plants rule the world.

11. Radar evidence of subglacial liquid water on Mars

Reminds me that NASA has a sense of humor too. Useful to know if you believe in Terraforming Mars.

12. Comparative efficacy and acceptability of 21 antidepressant drugs for the acute treatment of adults with major depressive disorder: a systematic review and network meta-analysis

Depression can be treated medicinally, but I have an (uninformed) suspicion the diversity in response to treatments reflects a diversity in the underlying illness. This study compares antidepressants.

13. The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration

Discussed in The Economist, this paper from Harvard Business School finds open plan offices seem to counterintuitively decrease face to face interactions and increase online communication. Having worked in a few different office layouts, I would suggest that the staff themselves make a bigger difference to communication than the layout. Also sociometric badges are a thing.

14. Structure and Distribution of an Unrecognized Interstitium in Human Tissues

Exciting to see a microscopy paper in the top 20. Highlights the importance of checking assumptions and going back to the fundamental structure, rather than abstracting.

15. Risk thresholds for alcohol consumption: combined analysis of individual-participant data for 599 912 current drinkers in 83 prospective studies

Although being slightly more positive on drinking than the alcohol study above, particularly noting “increased alcohol consumption was log-linearly associated with a lower risk of myocardial infarction”, overall the study found a decreased life expectancy overall for alcohol consumers. It goes on to suggest lowering the recommended limits for alcohol consumption to less than 100 g per week.

16. Death or Debt? National Estimates of Financial Toxicity in Persons with Newly-Diagnosed Cancer

The US continues to confuse the rest of the world with its views on health care. Specifically this study reveals that of US cancer patients, 42.4 % will have used up their entire life savings within 2 years.

17. Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion

It doesn’t seem to matter if you cut down on calories via lowering fat or lowering carbohydrate consumption, so long as you’re consuming less you will lose weight. Particularly interesting is the undermining of genotype evidence.

18. Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate

It’s interesting to question the causation here: are Russian Trolls trying to lower vaccine acceptance to weaken health in the US, or are they trying to build rapport with people prone to unfounded conspiracy theories, such as being anti-vaccine, to then promote other (political) falsehoods. Also: how vaccines work.

19. Decreases in global beer supply due to extreme drought and heat

While climate change is bad for both natural and agricultural plants, if the previous two alcohol papers are considered perhaps less beer in the world is not a bad thing.

20. Primary care-led weight management for remission of type 2 diabetes (DiRECT): an open-label, cluster-randomised trial

I’ve had several friends in medicine mention their direct observations of this in individual patients, but here it is presented as the aggregated results of 306 individuals. Weight loss results in remission of type 2 diabetes.

21. Association of Coffee Drinking With Mortality by Genetic Variation in Caffeine Metabolism

Coffee (maybe) is good for you! But the study suffers from “a ‘healthy volunteer’ selection bias”. Interestingly “Participants drinking 4 or more cups per day … were more likely to drink instant coffee and be current smokers, whereas participants drinking 1 to 3 cups per day were older, more likely to have a university degree, and more likely to report “excellent” health.” So the causation question remains: does coffee make you healthy, or do healthy well educated people drink coffee?

Extra Thoughts

It’s a little unsatisfying to be able to spend so little time on such interesting questions, but the nature of inquiry is a trade off between breadth and depth. This week I opted for breadth, and it serves as a reminder for how much interesting content there is being generated in the world.

Photos from the Week

It’s warming up in Oxford, and Toxic Daffodils are blooming. I managed to fit in watching a Cuppers game at the historic Sir Roger Bannister athletics track. Port Meadow is flooded, and the reflection in the sun is stunning.

Writing from home.

2019 Week 7: Zero to One

Short version: I read Peter Thiel’s notes on startups, had a couple college formal dinners, cycled in the Cotswolds, and bought some protein powder.

Long version:

Zero to One

Peter Thiel is founder of PayPal, and an early investor in Facebook, which have made him a billionaire. In 2012 he taught a course about startups at Stanford, which via Blake Master’s notes became the book Zero to One.

I will update this post later with my thoughts on the book and other missing sections.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 6: Happy Chinese New Year

Short version: Writing accurately about science takes time, but a few bits to push in that direction. 新年快乐!

Long version:

Writing About Science

I’ve noticed a lack of scientific content in my blog. Usually the week’s post is in the back of my mind throughout the week with a few notes in Google Keep. This week I started out early with a list of topics I’d like touch on, or even expand into, but by Sunday with relatively little progress and wanting to cover them in reasonable depth I’ve culled back significantly. At the moment my main motivation week to week in writing is to practice writing publicly, building confidence and prompting coherency in my thoughts. I would like to share insight, but presenting summaries of scientific work on interesting topics can very quickly grow into a lengthy task (e.g. Review Articles). Also, working full time in scientific research, often my weekend reading drifts into other fields, which then leads to less scientific blog writing.

Chinese New Year

新年快乐!(Happy Chinese New Year!) It is the year of the pig.

Some Hopefully Useful Scientific Content

Stuff I read this week

There is an annual report into happiness. Nature celebrates women behind the periodic table. Google is developing a timber high rise in Toronto. Economic downturn improves health (particularly smoking and obesity). NHS has some simple to follow gym-free workouts particularly neck, back, and knee. Drones being used to poison rats on the Galapagos, possibly targeting Possums in New Zealand next.

A thought on Consumerism

My current context is filled with incentives to buy more stuff. One of the photos from the week is of a particularly expensive sports car that I passed on a run, and I feel that in sharing it I am participating in a culture that causes us to covet impractical luxuries. After all, given speed limits and traffic exist, it’s unclear what the purpose of owning a super car is beyond conspicuous consumption. That said, there is an aesthetic pleasure to be taken from such things.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 5: Alcohol

Short version: I’m drinking a bit less, the media still likes skewing science to get page views, live music is wonderful, it snowed more in Oxford.

Long version:

Alcohol

Personal Experience:
Last week I wrote about having made the change to not eat meat. More recently I’ve been toying with cutting back on alcohol. Throughout January I observed a one drink per day maximum. This was most difficult socially, as I don’t have a single reason for cutting back, and there are many contexts where accepting drinks is the polite behaviour. Moreover it often felt more difficult to explain setting a threshold of one, than simply saying I didn’t drink, or was undertaking Dry January. I think in general this comes from a desire for principled consistency. While consuming alcohol is fun, I felt overall I was able to have just as good a time while consuming less, with benefits felt in sleep and recovery from training.

Guidelines:
The Australian Government Department of Health recommends no more than two standard drinks per day long term and no more than four standard drinks per day (where a standard drink is 10 g or 13 mL of ethanol). The British NHS has a similar 14 units per week, to be spread over 3 or more days , but using smaller units (8 g or 10 mL of ethanol). Of course the US is a little trickier to compare due to the lack of the metric system but the CDC recommends one drink for women and two for men, with much larger units (14 g being 0.6 ounces, or 18 mL).

Benefits of Alcohol:
In February of 2018 Dr Claudia Kawas presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas her work “The 90+ Study“. The quote from her talk “I have no explanation for it, but I do firmly believe that modest drinking improves longevity” led to headlines such as “Drinking Alcohol Better Than Exercise For Living Past 90“, “Study: Drinking Alcohol More Important Than Exercise to Living Past 90“, and “Drinking Small Amounts of Alcohol May Help You Live to over 90, Claims Study“. New Zealand joined the party almost a year later with “Drinking wine better than exercise if you want to live a long life“. YouTuber Doctor Mike did a comparison. After searching for a couple hours though I couldn’t actually find a peer-reviewed paper on these benefits. The study itself places less emphasis on the alcohol vs exercise question; “People who drank moderate amounts of alcohol or coffee lived longer than those who abstained.” (which is kind of funny since consuming alcohol and coffee seems to be pretty dangerous.) Notably the only mention of ‘alcohol’ or ‘exercise’ in the AAAS official news post was “Data show that the risk of developing dementia has declined slightly in the past decades, Kawas said, which she attributes to people improving their lifestyles: eating better, exercising more, trying to minimize stress.” I suspect omitting the alcohol point is deliberate.

Other Alcohol Stuff:
WHO Global status report on alcohol and health 2018. Dry January does not lead to increased drinking in February. People are drinking less in pubs (on-trade) and slightly more from supermarkets (off-trade).

Music: Soloists and Symphonies

I listened to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra perform Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges: Suite, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, and Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4. I particularly enjoyed the drama of the final piece, and the incredible energy of the orchestra. The soloist Augustin Hadelich has a pretty incredible life story, and incredibly clean sound.

Stuff I read this week

The Australian Bureau of Statistics National Health Survey 2017-18 suggest some fairly grim things about the diets of Australians. AI is getting really good at video games.

Photos: 5 Things that made this week great

Writing from home.